Tag Archives: Slaughterhouse-5

Iraq war heroes, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and Hollywood all meet in this funny new anti-war novel


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.

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Filed under Humor, Trade Fiction

So it goes: The sad life of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A review of And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The face that peers out at you from the cover is immeasurably sad. It’s the face of a man in middle age weighed down by lifetimes of tragedy. The man — one of the most remarkable novelists of the 20th century — is Kurt Vonnegut, known throughout much of his adult life as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields plumbs the depths of Vonnegut’s sadness. He began work shortly before Vonnegut’s death in 2006 and conducted lengthy interviews with his children, his first wife, contemporary writers, business associates, and neighbors. The intimacy and detail of the book is remarkable: a whole man emerges from its pages.

Vonnegut struggled through the first four decades of his long life — he died at 83 — then gradually gained readers through the 1960s until, with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, he became famous “overnight” as he neared the age of 50. After years of eating cereal for dinner and scraping for pennies selling what he regarded as hack stories for the popular magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, he and his wife suddenly found themselves rich as royalties poured in from reprints of his earlier work and as each succeeding book, good or bad, lingered on the best-seller lists for week after week.

Like the best of his novels — Cat’s Cradle, published in 1953, as well as Slaughterhouse-Five — Vonnegut was deceptively complex. In public, Vonnegut affected the manner, even for a time the moustache and the white suit, of his literary hero, Mark Twain. Like Twain, he was folksy and often screamingly funny. A rigid moralist and a plain-spoken opponent of war and defender of freedom of speech, he was idolized by a generation of students and was one of the most popular speakers on college campuses throughout the country during the 1970s and 1980s. In public appearances, Vonnegut generally came across as avuncular, considerate, and witty, often leaving audiences gasping from laughter. At the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he proved himself to be a popular and talented teacher.

The man himself, however, though consistently witty throughout his life, bore little other resemblance to his long-time public image. He treated his long-time first wife, Jane, with undisguised contempt, ignored his children and frightened their friends, betrayed his own friends by summarily ending decades-long business relationships, and, in his final years, became intolerably grouchy.

Reflecting the truism that “what goes around comes around,” Vonnegut’s childhood was deeply troubled. His mother, having been raised in luxury and dependent on servants for even the most mundane tasks, was emotionally upended by the Crash of 1929, when the family’s circumstances were sharply reduced. She spent the rest of her life sleeping for days on end and moping about the house, finally killing herself when Kurt was just 21 — on Mother’s Day, 1944. His feckless father, a talented engineer trapped in life as an architect like his brilliant father, paid little attention to Kurt as a child and almost never encouraged him in any way. All the family’s attention was fastened on Kurt’s older brother, Bernard, a gifted scientist who later in life discovered the technique of cloud-seeding to induce rain. When Kurt announced his interest in pursuing studies in the arts, Bernard insisted that he enroll at Cornell to study science, and the younger brother was powerless to resist. He lasted two years there and, later, pursued an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago with a similar lack of success. (Years later, he persuaded the Chicago Anthropology Department to accept his novel Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis and was awarded an M.A.)

Though tragedy in other forms continued to dog Vonnegut in later years, one event stands out as central to his character and his career: the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut had enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army the year before and, as his luck would have it, his unit was eventually sent to the Western Front in Europe — positioned at the farthest-forward salient in the Allied lines. Shortly afterward, the Germans attacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut and his buddies were quickly taken prisoner along with thousands of other Americans and marched overland to POW camps in Germany. Eventually, Vonnegut and a small number of his fellow prisoners were taken into Dresden and housed in a old slaughterhouse– very shortly before the horrific fire-bombing attack that killed more than 60,000 civilians. The Americans survived by hiding in a basement. They were put to work once the attack had ended — collecting and stacking corpses.

Is it any wonder why Kurt Vonnegut was cranky? Naturally, none of what he endured can excuse his bad behavior. But it certainly does begin to explain the current of profound sadness that ran throughout Vonnegut’s life.

So it goes.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction