Thursday, October 11, 2012

*Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

307 pp
Ecco, 2012
hardcover ed.

"Oh my people..."

"This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point..."

Before I go anywhere else with this novel,  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been announced as a finalist for the National Book Award.  After finishing this book, I'd say that being on this list comes as no surprise -- it is an outstanding novel, one that deserves its present and (I'm sure) future accolades.

Set during the Bush era, the main character of this novel is Billy Lynn, a 19 year-old soldier currently serving in Iraq who accidentally becomes the face of the Iraqi war for a two-week period of time.  Unlike a number of novels set during wartime that examine the madness, absurdities, and ambiguities of military life at the front, here the author uses soldier Billy Lynn and his buddies to cast an analytical and ironic gaze on the American people at home. All of the action occurs on one Thanksgiving day at a Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium, and the story is delivered using Ben Fountain's cleverly-devised and impressive  "dense, rude, pummeling, in-your-face" sound that adds an extra dimension of reality to the novel. 

Just two weeks away from his high-school graduation, Billy Lynn has to make a choice between a felony charge and joining the army after getting into trouble defending his sister's honor.   Over in Iraq, Billy's small group within the larger Bravo Company, where he is now an infantryman, encounters a group of insurgents on the banks of the Al-Ansakar Canal -- "a little kamikaze band of eight or ten bursting from the reeds at a dead sprint, screaming, firing on full automatic, one last rocks-off martyr’s gallop straight to the gates of the Muslim paradise."  When Billy's good friend Shroom is  hit, some of the insurgents start dragging him away. Billy runs out to save his friend, now gravely wounded:
"Like a slide show, alive, dead, alive, dead, alive, dead.  Billy was doing about ten different things at once, unpacking his medical kit, jamming a fresh magazine into his rifle, talking to Shroom, slapping his face, yelling at him to stay awake, trying to track the direction of the incoming rounds and crouching low with absolute fuck-all for cover."
While two men die in that engagement, Bravo comes through victorious, and all of the action is captured on video by an embedded Fox news team.  The footage went "viraling through the culture," and the next thing they know, this small group of soldiers, with Billy as the star hero,  are on their way home to do a Victory Tour, a two-week PR junket designed to boost morale and to bolster support for the war back in the US;  in reality, these soldiers are little more than celebrity pawns trotted out as heroes in a time when the government feels that America definitely needs them. Their time stateside is managed and micromanaged by their minders, who have to step in once in a while in case the Bravos say or do something which moves away from the positive image of the war and the military that they are there to project.  Along with these guys for the ride is a Hollywood producer who has been talking movie based on what happened at Al-Ansakar, along with his vague talk of  huge amounts of money for these men, cash that Billy (who makes less than $15 K per year) would put toward fixing his family's devastating financial problems.

On the  last day of their tour,  the Bravos end up at Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, where they are VIPs for the day. Before  the day is over this group of soldiers will be smiling and posing for the media, answering the same  pointless and shallow questions where their interviewers don't really want the truth of things. Over the last two weeks, Billy has come to the realization that most people, even well-meaning, conservative and patriotic Americans, are far removed from the truth of the war they supposedly support; even if he really wanted to tell them how it is, his minders are there to see that he doesn't.  The Bravos are taken to the exclusive Stadium Club where they eat dinner with millionaires who pay them lip service but don't really have a clue, later it's off to a round of shaking hands and schmoozing with the team's over-the-top owner, whose mind only works in dollars and cents, along with his family and  rich and influential friends. And all of this before the halftime show, a surreal military-themed event featuring BeyoncĂ©, PTSD-triggering fireworks, and the pompom-shaking Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders; then afterwards a fight on the field that really brings on spectator cheering. What's real is Iraq; this is all craziness.

For Billy in Iraq, it's all about  "the freaking randomness" that "wears on you,  the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace...";  now at home he is the reluctant hero, unsteady in this place where people who have absolutely no clue of what he goes through every day thank him for his service and wonder what it's like to kill someone. It's also where the rich and powerful war profiteers make small talk about  war but talk big about things like having lunch with George and Laura at the White House.  Billy realizes just how wide the gap is between these people and the guys for whom this constant reality of  "randomness" is a fact of life:
 “Americans, he says to himself, gazing around the room.  We are all Americans here...They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living—gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren’t quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style of, say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter. It's not that he's jealous so much as profoundly terrified. Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that's how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires.  This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point..."
And it's not just in the Stadium Club or in the owner's suite where Billy senses that things are messed up. The entire day his mind floats between the constant reality of  life and death  Bravo faces regularly and the  "fakeness" going on all around him, which his fellow Americans seem to buy into wholeheartedly,
"maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms,"
the artificiality of it all that Billy had never noticed before his time in combat.

In  Iraq he has his buds watching his back all of the time; here he can't even get an Advil  to get rid of his headache.  Bravo's time at the stadium is just filled with ironic moments, for example, the massively-equipped football team that draws comparisons to how underprovisioned  the army soldiers are; the uninterested football stars who won't even look at the soldiers while signing their souvenir footballs;  the Jumbotron with its constant barrage of ads ("Maybe the game is just an ad for the ads") interspersed with the Bravo video as if the soldiers are just another commodity being sold and war is just another thing Americans absolutely need to have.  And then there's the BS-speaking, patronizing uber-rich oil guy living a "lucrative patriotic life" trying to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by boosting domestic production to get "you young men home."  Justify away. But the craziest thing of all is that after the Victory Tour, Bravo has to return to Iraq.  After a whirlwind two weeks of being the media darlings and the poster boys for heroism, it's now godspeed and all that, goodbye, coffee break's over, back to work and back to anonymity.

To be honest, the story is extremely slow to start and at first the language  feels a little gimmicky, but after getting past the first few chapters, it was much easier to fall into the author's rhythm and  I was hooked.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is funny and at times depressing, but it is also so on target.  In the author's hands, Billy Lynn and the Bravos become critics of a really crazy American culture that cares more about anything but the far-away war in Iraq where young soldiers like the Bravos are getting blown to bits.   Yellow ribbons, lip-service or well-intentioned thank yous, an "oh that's terrible" here and there, a booty-grinding military sendup at halftime are all fine and well, but then it's back to the business of business, who's making the headlines in the tabloids, and other American pastimes.   And then there's all  the hype behind and the whole PR business of  selling this war to an American public -- that's just insanity.  This book leaves you with several points to mull over long after you've finished it -- the mark of a truly good writer, in my opinion.  I'm sure that there will be plenty of people who don't like what the author has to say; in fact I know there will be, but I loved this book and although it's really impossible to fully discuss the whole thing  here, I can't speak highly enough about it.  Definitely recommended. 


  1. I thought you did a great job on this review, you managed to capture the essence of this unusual story. I also read and liked this book. My review is here. I enjoy reading your blog.

    1. I see you really liked it too! I was absolutely blown away. I made a little comment on your blog as well.

  2. So glad you liked it as much as I did. It really captures something about our culture that we recognize, even if we do not live that way ourselves most of the time. Considering the author is not a veteran, I find it astonishingly familiar and true-seeming: A brilliant riff on US.

    1. To be really honest, I got this book as the selection from Book Passage's signed first editions club and nearly gave it away unread. But I decided since I wanted to focus on American authors this month I would give it a try. I'm really glad I did.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.