Book Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Synopsis via Goodreads:
A finalist for the National Book Award!
Three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare with Iraqi insurgents has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America’s most sought-after heroes. Now they’re on a media-intensive nationwide tour to reinvigorate support for the war. On this rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside Destiny’s Child.
Among the Bravos is Specialist Billy Lynn. Surrounded by patriots sporting flag pins on their lapels and Support Our Troops bumper stickers, he is thrust into the company of the Cowboys’ owner and his coterie of wealthy colleagues; a born-again Cowboys cheerleader; a veteran Hollywood producer; and supersized players eager for a vicarious taste of war. Over the course of this day, Billy will drink and brawl, yearn for home and mourn those missing, face a heart-wrenching decision, and discover pure love and a bitter wisdom far beyond his years.
This is a hard book to sum up or describe. While Billy Lynn takes place over the course of one day, Billy’s reflections take us into his memories of his service in Iraq as well as to the previous two weeks spent touring the US. Billy is smart and surprisingly mature for age 19 — although perhaps not really so surprising, given what he’s been through. The Bravos have survived an intense battle but have suffered terrible loss as well — and thanks to embedded journalists and video footage fresh from the battlefield, they’ve become instant celebrities and poster boys for the American war effort. Everywhere they go, they’re mobbed by grateful citizens who want to shake their hands, praise their courage, and find out if America is really winning the war.
Meanwhile, Billy and his fellow soldiers are a bit shell-shocked by their losses, their battlefield experiences, and their insta-fame. Thrust back into the heart of the US for a two-week whirlwind “Victory Tour”, the guys are bombarded by the sheer absurdity of it all, as the publicity machine moves them forward and a Hollywood producer tries to spin their story into big fat paychecks. And when they’re all done being paraded around like trophies? It’s back to Iraq for another eleven months, and who knows whether any of them will make it home again?
The writing is intense, often aggressive, and high energy, and yet full of moments of beauty as well:
The transect of sky through the open dome is the color and texture of rumbled pewter, an ominous boil of bruised sepias and ditchwater grays that foretells all kinds of weather-related misery.
Or in a scene at a press conference:
He means to say more, but the room erupts in thunderous applause. Billy is stunned, then worried that they have missed the point, then he’s sure they’ve missed the point but is too unconfident of his communication skills to try to force a clarification down their throats. They’re happy, so he will leave it at that. The flash cameras are really going now, and like so much of his nineteen years’ experience of life it has become mainly something to get through, then the applause dies down and he’s asked if he’ll be thinking of his friend Seargeant Breem during the playing of the national anthem today, and he says yes just to to keep it upbeat and on track, Yes, I sure will, which sounds obscene to his ears, and he wonders by what process virtually any discussion about the war seems to profane these ultimate matters of life and death. As if to talk of such things properly we need a mode of speech near the equal of prayer, otherwise just shut, shut your yap and sit on it, silence being truer to the experience than the star-spangled spasm, the bittersweet sob, the redeeming hug, or whatever this fucking closure is that everybody’s always talking about. They want it to be easy and it’s just not going to be.
In various places throughout the book, words may be scattered across the page or repeated until they lose all meaning, and the chapter in which the men of Bravo are in the VIP clubhouse at the stadium during the singing of the national anthem is truly a work of art.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been nominated for countless awards and has received all sorts of critical praise. Who am I to disagree? This is a moving, clever, and provocative look at what is truly sacrificed when a nation goes to war, and a piercing exploration of so-called American values. This is a book that requires the reader to think, and the thoughts it provokes are not pretty. Seeing these young men being sent overseas to die — and it’s made very clear that their deaths are the most likely outcome — demonstrates all over again that money pulls the strings, that media provides a glossy and inspirational story of heroism, but that the soldiers are thrust into situations in which they can not possibly succeed, and in which their own death or mutilation is a constant but too-real threat.
Sadly, in every war and in every generation, a new crop of books emerges to remind us all over again of the waste and horror of it all. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk belongs on the shelf right next to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, among others. Billy Lynn is a literary achievement with a powerful punch, and deserves every bit of the attention it has received.
Title: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Author: Ben Fountain
Publication date: 2012
Genre: Contemporary fiction