Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Reviews: Billy in wartime. Banned books update. Floricanto on the eve of independence.

Satire loads up on rich targets

Review: Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. New York : Ecco, 2012.
Isbn 9780060885595 0060885599

Michael Sedano

It’s about time someone came up with a good satire of the Bush Iraq war years, something Ben Fountain accomplishes in his Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It's a grand satire that should lead readers to ask what is the value of a soldier's life? Why are our troops not yet home?

Billy Lynn is an east Texas boy, one of those rangy cowboy types with a keen mind and a Texas public school education. In other words, Billy’s not dumb, he’s just been raised that way. Trouble is, a keen mind keeps Billy looking at context and searching for something that looks normal to him.

Here he is at nineteen years old touring the nation to strike up enthusiasm for Bush’s Iraq war. Mired in a sea of people slapping his back or teary-eyed to meet the hero, people treat him like an object. The big shots who come on to Billy’s heroism—“you’re the one with the medal”—don’t give a moco for Billy but they’re proud that it was one of their own, a Texas boy, on teevee, fighting off an attack, Billy the guy with a soldier dying in his lap. Such heroism, sacrifice, killing, makes them proud that nina leven is getting some payback and pose for a picture on my iPhone.

The welter of stilted conversations, ritual greetings, and gushing admiration boils down in Billy’s experience to the question Fountain puts in his mind. “Why do you do this for us?” Billy, stunned in realizing this owner’s suite hell is normal to these people, is shaken to the core with no answer. To his infant nephew he sends a message: if I’m not around you tell him, I said don’t ever join the Army.

Billy’s Sergeant Dime has the best lines in the story. Dime is a scion of the 1% who’s chosen a decent man’s life as a grunt. His life lets Dime stand toe-to-toe with rich guys and even Norm himself. Dime does the thinking Bravo follows orders.  Billy doesn’t have the words so it’s Dime's role to provide a rant when it’s called for, as when a pig of an oil man imagines how hard a combat soldier’s life treats him.

“That’s not it at all! We like violence, we like going lethal! I mean, isn’t that what you’re paying us for? . . .  . I love every one of these mutts like a brother, I bet I love them more than their mommas even, but I’ll tell you frankly, and they know how I feel so I can say this right in front of them, but just for the record, this is the most murdering bunch of psychopaths you’ll ever see. I don’t know how they were before the Army got them, but you give them a weapons system and a couple of Ripped Fuels and they’ll blast the hell out of anything that moves. Isn’t that right, Bravo? . . .  . So if your family’s oil company wants to frack the living shit out of the Barnett Shale, that’s fine, sir, that’s absolutely your prerogative, but don’t be doing it on our account. You’ve got your business and we’ve got ours, so you just keep on drilling, sir, and we’ll keep on killing.” (66)

Fountain sets his plot in motion around a movie deal. Here’s another side to Billy’s fundamental questions about this war, what is a soldier worth?

A producer has latched on to the Bravos, but he cannot close a deal. For the soldiers, there’s no money up front, but once a star and studio climb aboard, the producer has the men thinking they are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. For working class men, the sum has value as mere fantasy, like hooking up with a Dallas cheerleader.

Each of the men of Bravo squad, except for SGT Dime, escaped a crappy life by picking up the recruiter’s inkpen. As excited at the prospect of movie money as getting a lapdance from Beyoncé, the Bravos occupy whatever moment is at hand. They depend on their Sergeant, and Billy, to see the deal through. Fatalistic, they’ll take whatever someone’s willing to pay.

That’s a good choice for Fountain. The author doesn’t have to develop those characters beyond a gesture or a feel-good experience. When the tour is over, Fountain and the Army are sending them back to Iraq, where such questions--why and is it worth it--are absurd.

The title comes from the end of the novel. After a grotesque freak show in Norm’s suite, the Bravos descend to another hell, the march into a halftime spectacular where their duty calls on them to serve as mannequins in uniform to Destiny’s Child.

Chaos ensues and the Bravos have to fight their way out of this support the troops hell.  Now Fountain plays his stroke of pure cruelty to the hilt. The Bravos survive another ambush in the parking lot then load into the white Hummer headed directly to the airport and the return flight to Iraq.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk delivers the same flavor irony Charlie Trujillo flavors his Dogs From Illusion about Vietnam Veterans. Trujillo’s infantrymen return home to their old jobs picking melons and being cheated by their boss. Fountain really twists the pinch here, putting the Bravos through this crap then sending them back into it with the best offer for their lives. In a delicious scene, Billy watches Dime unmask super-patriot Norm. To support the war, Norm’s willing to make a $30 million dollar movie and pay each Bravo $5500.

This is plain mean, Mr. Fountain, but a stiletto of a point. $5500 is less than half the value of a GI’s life insurance policy. Every soldier has that insurance number engraved in active memory. This is how much I’m worth. A living Bravo is worth half what a dead Bravo’s worth. Oh say can you see it now?

One mark of capable satire is its ability to lead readers to ponder what makes authors and characters passionately angry? Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not a war story about heroes and duty. These guys are soldiers so we know they will follow orders.

Fountain wants to inquire into the reader’s duty.

What is it, in us, as United States Americans that we allow people like Bush, and Norm and his friends in the owner’s suite, to send out boys like Billy and Mango to kill and die in our name? When people say “I support the troops,” this is what that looks like in dollars and real world common sense, fifty-five hundred dollars for you, millions for me.

So why do we ask them to do it, soldiers?

Much as I enjoy the novel, Fountain leaves me with an equivocal enthusiasm for the deserter ploy, and the constant distraction built into "Billy" as an allusion to Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Il miglior fabbro.

Fountain sets up a red herring using as support Billy’s asshole father, abused mother, children, and a sister’s plea that Billy desert. Had the author carried through this bit of cheap agon, it would have been the worst case of character assassination since the upcoming presidential election against Obama. There is never a question that Billy or any Bravo would desert, but it sends up a smokescreen for readers who don’t see that not happening. Billy is not going to desert, the Bravos are not going to quit.

It’s up to the nation’s Rubens to support the troops by voting the Norm tipas tipos out of power and bring the troops home. Ruben’s the chicano food worker who invites Mango and Billy to share a joint on a private stadium overlook. The two soldiers and the vato pass the number, offering a singular measure of Ruben’s admiration for the troops. Here, Fountain’s storytelling skills rise toward the sublime. When Ruben explodes outraged learning Billy and Mango are headed back to Iraq, the scene brings tears to a reader, realizing this is what “support the troops” looks like, helpless outrage.

The hallmark of satire is irony. And that’s irony.

 Review: A Vietnam Veteran's memoir and a friend named Billy 

Eraldo Lucero. Echoes of a Distant Past. Screaming Eagles. Vietnam War Memoirs, 1969-70. Pena Blanca NM: Eraldo Lucero, 2012.
Isbn 9781466360396

Michael Sedano

Back in 1969, a month after the Army sent me to live atop a Korean mountaintop missile site, the Army sent Eraldo Lucero to Vietnam. 

There, the Eleven Bravo—Army code for a grunt—from New Mexico would earn the Combat Infantryman Badge and other medals during a year humping hills and jungles, eventually finishing his tour on a pair of remote mountaintops in the final major battle of the Vietnam war.

Lucero’s memoir provides a fit counterpart to a reading of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Where violence and warfare come with a literary glitz, the writer struggles not to glorify war, killing, and the death of friends. Fountain doesn’t make it, his story, and not having been a soldier, constrains his fingers, leading to a glorious accounting of the attack and rescue caught by Fox teevee news cameras and making Billy and the Bravos heroes.

In recent US war literature, Chicana and Chicano writers are among the most effective, including Vietnam Veterans Charlie Trujillo, Dogs From Illusion; Alfredo Vea, Gods Go Begging; Daniel Cano Shifting Loyalties

Echoes of a Distant Past reads like Lucero and you sitting down and telling each other’s stories. This is mine, he says, and tells it. The writer Lucero doesn’t inject his memories with glitz or hyperbole.

Lucero’s pages lead a reader chronologically from in-country orientation to his first hostile fire, then from trail to ambush, battle to battle, night attacks and the occasional pendejada. He speaks in quiet, matter-of-fact declaratives. This is what happened to me.

You may know vatos who fought the war in Vietnam, and likely they don’t do a lot of talking about it. Maybe a friend gets up and quietly leaves the room when someone starts talking about a book they read about the war. Maybe you have a friend who enjoys Ben Fountain’s fictive Billy but would not be OK with Eraldo Lucero’s memories of his friend Billy.

Except for those Veterans with good reason to shy away, reading Echoes of a Distant Past fills-in knowledge that is beginning to disappear from the body politic. Lucero wants this knowledge to disappear or at least diminish for him. He says he writes to get this stuff out of his system. In whatever manner expression fulfills an exigency, memoirs like this deserve to be written, as well as have a place alongside novels and short fiction.

Novels tell stories at a distance, in belletristic dramatic relief. A memoir like this doesn’t draw characters, it remembers friends, events, details, like relentless grunt quotidiana of being the first soldier to walk into a field of fire, losing friends, who was where when the sappers attacked:

At this point, I remember hearing Roy Larison opening up with his M-60 machine gun. Hank Trickey was in the same foxhole with Larison, just a little to the left of my foxhole and assisting him with the machine-gun fire. As soon as they began firing, I noticed the satchel charges moving away from my position and now exploding on their position. To this day, I’ve felt that they saved my life that night. . . . at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. as we came out of our foxholes, the situation within our perimeter was extremely chaotic. Guys were still yelling for the medics from all different directions within the perimeter.

Although Echoes of a Distant Past, as most self-published work, would benefit from detailed editing, there’s no missing the numbing authenticity of a soldier’s story, such as when an aging Veteran learns the details of a friend’s death.

Lucero and Billy, Billy Lucas, were tight. Billy is assigned to a new unit, where he is killed. Thirty five years later, Lucero meets a man who’d been in that unit, and who tells Lucero about that time when “Kentucky” got hit in the forehead. That’s what it’s like to be a soldier, sometimes. Die without a name.

Billy Lucas, QEPD.

And QEPD the fifty-five names that close the memoir beginning on page 125. KIA, Killed in Action, with the 2/502nd Infantry Battalion in Operation Texas Star, including Hills 714 and 882. Many of these men are ¡Presente! in the pages of Echoes of a Distant Past. Read the names. Qepd.

News & Notes Update: Zócalo Poet Laureate Video

La Bloga shared a trio of fotos recently of California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera at his Zócalo evening.  As promised, click here to navigate to the full video of Herrera’s engaging talk.

Banned Books Update

Freedom's flag in the dawn's early light
Amid the tumult raised in the wake of the Supreme Court's tax decision and letting the lower court resolve the "show me your papers" issue, the books and culture that formerly nurtured the successful Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson Unified Schools continue being banned from classrooms and student's minds.

A thought-eating bacterium appears to have spread from Arizona to Texas, where education policy makers don't want to challenge a student's fixed beliefs, so they want to ban teaching the kids to think for themselves.

On-Line Floricanto Day Three of Month Seven 2012

It’s the eve of the United States of America’s Independence Day from England. That’s the revolución that killed a bunch of Europeans and some locals so thereafter all of us would be equal.

Call that one of history’s bigger ongoing ironies.

Caviling fools and pinheads fill the air with complaints that freedom is a limited commodity, especially in Arizona. If justice continues to prevail, the whines heard round the world from angry right wingers sounds their last gasp.

La Bloga's On-Line Floricanto on the eve of US Independence Day brings the voices of five poets sounding out loud confident defiant: Odilia Galván Rodríguez, Jorge Alejandro Medina, Joe Navarro, Julie Corrales, Fernando Rodriguez.

“Becoming Visible” by Odilia Galván Rodríguez
"Mi color es un crimen" por Jorge Alejandro Medina
“She Did All the Right Things” by Joe Navarro
“Hasta la Victoria” by Julie Corrales
"Letter to Arpaio" by Fernando Rodriguez

Becoming Visible

Odilia Galván Rodríguez

no longer invisible
you wish to banish us
back in time

to our quiet place
stooped in fields
in your gardens

kitchens loud
clattered and steam filled
laundry rooms

quietly nurturing
you and yours like our own

lucky if left with family
less so if latchkeyed
lonely and locked in

scared to make a sound
lest neighbors call

living in fear
of offending
of being visible

time and struggle
changed that game
people learned their rights

to fight for what is just
to come out into the light


Mi color es un crimen

Jorge Alejandro Medina

Mi color es un crimen
Duermo con el miedo a mi lado
Mientras veo venir el tren
Se olvidan que todos fuimos lodo.

Arranco esperanza de la esperanza
Todo parece que somos un número
Me quieren castigar por mi raza
Pero si Dios fue primero.

Los míos me acogen con sus brazos
Nada está perdido para la luz encendida
Se parecen a la furia de los osos
Pero no podrán con la caridad espléndida.

El fuego cae y sólo es ruido
Mis entrañas se retuercen
Y pienso en lo que fue el nido
Mis labios callados gritan a los que se enfurecen

Todo será tranquilad y vida
Algún día seguro que respiraré la paz
Será existencia real y a los demás dirigida
Sólo pienso en el amor y en hacer eso capaz.

She Did All the Right Things

by Joe Navarro

She did all the right things...

Studied diligently, worked hard
Academically made great strides
Went throughout school impressing
Her teachers and imbued
Her padres with orgullo

She was the student everyone
Knew would succeed and the
Student every teacher bragged
About in the teachers' lounge

She did everything right...
She tearfully explained this
To the arresting officers who
Cuffed her, dragged her to
The jail, where she awaits
Being severed from the only
Home she's ever known for
As long as she can remember

But now faces the prospect
Of being abandoned in an
Unfamiliar place away from
Family and a lifetime of friends

She did all the right things...
And shined brightly, being a
Brilliant star...all the right things
To make her a productive member
Of this society...which does not
Matter in the court of
Ignorance and prejudice

Joe Navarro
© Copyright 2012

Hasta La Victoria

Julie Corrales

Stories untold, weighty on my shoulders
I live the skeletons of history hid from me
You can lie to my face, but not to my condition
I don’t need banned books to know
of disenfranchisement, of my mother’s forced submission
Knelt over shinning porcelain latrines,
Poetry in all her motions, pride in her calloused hands,
Now you deny me her dignity,
call her struggle towards prosperity, stealing of resource and land
call me unpatriotic when I raise my closed fist to sky
demanding what she died for,
earth which should have been my birthright
chronicles burned through genocide
stories and tragedies and triumphs you simply deny
I don’t need your admission, the truth burns under my
Bronze skin and deep in my onyx eyes
The raging fire in my brick red heart, exposes your lies
And we will continue to fight
Until cherry pickers, and babysitters,
House cleaners are heroes memorialized
Till our history is taught to our descendants
And our victory written in a red, white, and blue sky.

Letter to Arpaio

Fernando Rodriguez

Hello Mr. Arpaio
From California the people salute you
Chicano style like in a soccer game
Whistles and boos is what you deserve

The man who thinks himself a legal
The man who wants to apprehend illegals
The man who says he is the law
The only sheriff breaking up laws

Hating immigrants in an immigrant country
Enjoying and hailing an American dinner
No idea you have that an immigrant picked it

So proudly you brag and hail at a State
A state free of immigrants you wish to have
A bunch of dumb people follow you behind

Senseless and with no feelings you seem to be
Breaking up families and breaking up dreams
Asking for papers from people around you
Native Americans ask the same from you

Ironies of life the ones we live today
Attacking the dreams,
Same dreams that brought you here

If an American you’re claiming to be
We are more American we were born here

The American continent is where I’m from
I’m sorry Arpaio I don’t expect you to know

Oh one last thing mister don’t call me more names
My mom gave me one and was approved by god.

“Becoming Visible” by Odilia Galván Rodríguez
"Mi color es un crimen" por Jorge Alejandro Medina
“She Did All the Right Things” by Joe Navarro
“Hasta la Victoria” by Julie Corrales
"Letter to Arpaio" by Fernando Rodriguez

Odilia Galván Rodríguez, is a poet/activist and healer.  She has been involved in social justice organizing and helping people find their creative and spiritual voice for over two decades.  Odilia teaches creative writing workshops nationally, and is a moderator and one of the founding members of Poets Responding to SB 1070.  She also co-hosts "Poetry Express" a weekly open mike with featured poets in Berkeley, CA

Hola mi nombre es Jorge Alejandro, el profesor Francisco X me dijo que quería publicar mi poema en la revista Bloga, con gusto acepto esta nominación y sólo me queda decir gracias, recién escribí en ingles  un poco sobre mi, pero le comento  que el inglés no es mi primer idioma aunque tengo un tiempo viviendo acá en U.S.A en si mi vida me la he llevado viviendo más tiempo en México que acá, le cuento un poco sobre mi, estudié filosofía en el Seminario Diocesano de Tijuana, me gradué apenas un año atrás, lo que me inspira escribir poemas es la realidad y la interpretación tan diferente que le podemos dar sin que pierda su esencia,  los sufrimientos y los esfuerzo que las personas hacen para sobrevivir suele ser un algo muy cautivante y detonador, también escribo sobre política o el amor, etc. solo me queda decir muchas gracias.!!

Hi, let me introduce myself, my name is Jorge Alejandro Medina, Francisco X Alarcon, told me about the nomination of my poem to be on The Bloga magazine, let me say little bit more about me, well   I have a bachelor in Philosophy from Seminario Diocesano de Tijuana, I used to work as seminarist in some communities from Baja California,  now I work in L.A., I would say that I found my passion about writing poems a few years ago, I really enjoy doing it,  my inspirations come from watching  our reality and how people suffers  and struggles every day with it, also,  I can write about  love, politics and different stuff or themes.
Thanks for like my poems.

Alejandro Medina.

Joe Navarro is a literary vato loco, teacher, poet, creative writer, husband, father and grandfather.  Joe integrates his poetic voice with life's experiences, and blends culture with politics.  His poetic influences include the Beat Poets, The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Alurista, Gloria Anzaldua, Lalo Delgado and numerous others.

Julie Corrales is a first-generation American born to a Mexican mother and Costa Rican father.  Raised in City Heights, the poorest and most predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of San Diego, California, Julie navigated a world of drugs, gangs, and poverty. A mother at 15, she dropped out of school and began working, determined to provide more opportunities for her son. After much growth and sacrifice, today Julie raises two sons, works,  writes, studies, and remains politically active in San Diego. She draws on her experiences to advocate for and write about Chicano issues. Julie's essays have been published in the San Diego Union Tribune and local bi-lingual publication La Prensa San Diego. Her first-born son is an artist, musician, athlete, and straight-A student at James Madison High School.

My name is Fernando Rodriguez and I am a student at Merced college Los Banos Campus. Born in Mexicali B.C. Mexico and Raised in Salinas Ca. I grew up in a city with diverse ethnicity, it was then and there where I learned about Chicanismo. I had a struggle to find out who i was, therefore I released my emotions in a piece of paper, not knowing I was writing poetry. One day while in Summer in an English class, the teacher announces a poet will come to town and that we are all invited. After that, I got this passion for writing about everything I can, because I learned written word are as powerful as a weapon. Special thanks to my friend Mrs. Meg Withers for supporting and believing in me and everything i do, and to Mr. Javier X. Alarcon for giving me that boost and showing me real poetry that day.


Anonymous said...

Powerful poems from powerful writers! Thanks for spreading the truth.

Thelma T. Reyna said...

I only wish our politicians in Washington as well as California read these poems and La Bloga in general...to really begin understanding what our millions of Latinos/as feel, think, and experience.