A review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Tending to squeamishness as I do, I don’t often read novels about war unless they’re written with a generous dose of humor. Oh, I’ll admit to having read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and a few other classics I remember less vividly, but that was all long ago. More recently, I’ve read and reviewed only Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse, and The Outpost, by Jake Tapper. The war novels I truly cherish and have even been known to re-read are . . . well, anti-war novels, not to put too fine an edge on it. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s MASH, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 are all dead serious, of course, but they’re also hilarious from time to time (and Catch-22 nearly nonstop so). I generally find it difficult to deal with the grim side of war without a little help.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fits very neatly into this latter category. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. It was no surprise to me when I learned after finishing the book that it had won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s that good.
Billy Lynn is a certified, true-blue, red-blooded American hero, one of eight surviving soldiers in a ten-man squad that engaged a large band of Iraqi insurgents in a deadly firefight. One of the two lifers in the squad, a sergeant Billy idolized, was shot, then grabbed and dragged away by two insurgents. Witnessing this terrible scene, Billy instantly, unthinkingly, leapt into the line of fire, shot and killed the sergeant’s two captors while dodging a barrage of bullets, and then proceeded to kill many of the other enemy fighters with one hand while he tended to the gravely wounded man with his other, finally cradling him in his lap as he died.
Clearly, events like this, though uncommon, were not unheard-of in the Iraq war — but this show of heroism was unique: it was captured on video by a Fox News camera team embedded with a neighboring squad and quickly found its way onto every TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone in America. Suddenly, Billy and his squad — erroneously dubbed “Bravo Squad” by reporters — are national heroes. Two, including Billy, received Silver Stars (though Billy’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Medal of Honor). Donald Rumsfeld’s Army, never slow to notice the possibility of a PR coup, yanks the squad out of Iraq and puts them on a multi-city “Victory Tour” all across the United States. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk tells the tale of the last couple of days of the Bravos’ tour, as they rush through a series of grueling appearances on Thanksgiving Day — prior to returning to Iraq to complete the eleven months left on their tours of duty.
Much of the story revolves around Billy’s interaction with the folks at home, and here’s where Ben Fountain shows his stuff and lays bare his feelings: “All the fakeness just rolls right off them, 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. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he’d done time in a combat zone.”
Billy is nineteen years old, a native of small-town Stovall, Texas, and the rest of the Bravos hail from other towns throughout the broad sweep of the American South, from North Carolina to Arizona. They’re white, black, and brown. They’re real.
Ben Fountain has written one previous novel and a slew of short stories and nonfiction pieces for a long list of prestigious publications. He has won an arm’s length of awards for his literary work.