A biting and quite funny satire that delivers a punch made more powerful because there is an utter believability to most of the story — you can just see a lot of events depicted happening “for real” — Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is one of the best novels I read this year, or ever for that matter. I liberally used the highlight function on my Kindle, bookmarking dozens of passages for later recall.
It’s a pity that a certain segment of the American population won’t bother to read this book, which shines an uncomfortably bright spotlight on issues of class, politics, economics, patriotism and religion.
After taking part in a dramatic firefight in Iraq that was filmed by an embedded crew from Fox News, nineteen-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn and the seven other surviving members of his Army squad are on the final day of a whirlwind two week “Victory Tour” of the US. Finishing up at Texas Stadium as guests of the Dallas Cowboys for the annual Thanksgiving Day game, Billy and his mates will report to Fort Hood immediately after the game before returning to Iraq to finish out the year left on their tour.
The soldiers of Bravo Squad are hung over and reeling from the frenetic pace of the Victory Tour, but they’re also still trying to deal with the death and injury of friends in the battle, during which Billy displayed great courage and coolness under fire. Tagging along is Albert, a Hollywood producer trying to put together a movie deal to make the Bravos rich and even more famous, and the battle-scarred, mysterious and dangerously deaf Major Mac, their Army-assigned chaperone.
In the time it takes to play a football game, Billy and the Bravos will have to make it through countless speeches, bask in the adulation of a many, survive assaults on their minds and bodies by friends and foes, try to strike it rich, strive to meet halftime headliners Destiny’s Child … and did I mention meeting the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders?
Although called by some reviewers Catch-22 for the Iraq War, I think Mr. Fountain’s debut novel differs from Joseph Heller’s classic in a couple important ways. First and foremost is, as mentioned above, the realism. Granted, it has been years since I read and enjoyed Catch-22, but I recall much of it to be so wildly improbable as to be considered a farce — I’m not knocking it, just saying. In contrast, most of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk rings with a truthfulness that ratchets up the reader’s emotions.
Billy and Mango stand there eating scalding hot pizza and know that their fame is not their own. Mainly it’s another thing to laugh about, this huge floating hologram of context and cue that leads everyone around by the nose, Bravo included, but Bravo can laugh and feel somewhat superior because they know they’re being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed. Every Bravo is a PhD in the art and science of duress.
— Fountain, Ben (2012-05-01). Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel (pp. 28-29). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
One negative reviewer I read complained that Billy and the other Bravo soldiers have “nothing in common” with soldiers they knew, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Some are sketched lighter than others, but I recognized plenty from my days as a division officer and department head in the Navy. Need a more “Army-centric” comparison? Try watching the excellent Sebastian Junger-Tim Hetherington documentary Restrepo, something I did again after reading this book to confirm my initial impressions.
In a second departure from Catch-22 — despite what some negative reviewers say — the U.S. Army, indeed the military in general, comes across in a positive light. The Army was at best complicit, and likely wholly responsible for, the myth-creation surrounding Private Jessica Lynch and former-NFL player Pat Tillman, but here the events leading to the Bravo’s Victory Tour are fully documented and indeed available for anyone to see on YouTube.
For sure, shots are taken at politicians responsible for the Iraq War and the hollowness and hypocrisy of those for whom “support the troops” has become a reflex that doesn’t extend to allowing any sacrifice that will actually affect the spouter of said platitudes, but the soldiers who are actually conducting the dirty business of war in a foreign nation are treated with respect.
Many of the positive attributes of military service that I recall and indeed experienced are highlighted. Billy and the Bravos are more mature and focused than their peers — just nineteen, Billy is thought at one point to be many years older — and have exercised responsibilities the breadth and depth of which few civilians will experience. That isn’t to say Billy and the Bravos are saints or even grown-ups; they’re a rough-around-the-edges bunch, smart but not schooled, trained to be deadly but not socially graceful, and bonded to each other as combat soldiers. And very few of them come from money.
What cards these Bravos are, what a grab-ass band of brothers. Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation by anyone’s standard, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.
— Fountain, Ben (2012-05-01). Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel (p. 166). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
As noted above, it is a pity that some won’t bother to read this fine novel. But clear positions are expressed on so many topics that run counter to the expressed beliefs of many political conservatives and those in our polarized society willing to openly cross party lines seem to be an endangered species. Some of sharpest passages address the disparity between the haves and have-nots — both politically and economically — in America. The Iraq War’s legitimacy is addressed, as is the integrity of the country’s leaders who started that conflict. As Hollywood producer Albert, who admits to avoiding his own military service, puts it:
“All the big warmongers these days who took a pass on Vietnam, look, I’d be the last person on earth to start casting blame. Bush, Cheney, Rove, all those guys, they just did what everybody else was doing and I was right there with ’em, chicken as anybody. My problem now is how tough and gung-ho they are, all that bring-it-on crap, I mean, Jesus, show a little humility, people. They ought to be just as careful of your young lives as they were with their own.”
— Fountain, Ben (2012-05-01). Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Read this book and I hope you enjoy it and find as much to ponder as I did. When you’re done, read or re-read Catch-22 (I’m going to) and watch Restrepo.