Tag Archives: Texas

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

Why do so many people buy John Grisham’s books?


A review of The Confession: A Novel, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you read books, then you almost certainly know the name John Grisham. He’s the author of 24 best-selling novels, ten of which have been adapted to film. His second book — The Firm, published in 1991 — sold seven million copies, and you can bet that after every one of his subsequent novels hit best-seller lists, the first one did, too, in a paperback reprint.


Take Grisham’s latest, for example. The Confession tells a familiar story: a young African-American man is railroaded into a guilty verdict by the so-called justice system of the State of Texas.  The real rapist and murderer surfaces, but not in time to stop the young man’s execution for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Only later is justice served, after a fashion, when the young man is exonerated. End of story.

It’s a great story, really, and such a brief synopsis can’t possibly do justice to the plot, the characters, the setting, the details of the legal system, or, for that matter, the author. But the fact remains: it’s just a story.

Not only that: it’s also a story very simply told. You’d search in vain through the pages of The Confession for even a single writerly turn of phrase. There’s no stylistic flourish, no soaring prose. Just simple Anglo-Saxon dialogue and narrative. Grisham even lapses once into the hideous attorney’s phrase, “pursuant to.” (Yuck!)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was a great fan of John Grisham’s previous legal thrillers, all of which I’ve read, and I enjoyed The Confession enormously. When Grisham has another one published — he’s only 55 now — I’ll almost certainly read that one, too.

So, again, why?

The answer to this nagging question isn’t all that simple. It’s partly a matter of craft, of course. Grisham’s plotting is masterful. He weaves together the threads of each story into a compelling and often heart-pounding tale. Every incident, every flashback, every character, every word appears just exactly where it needs to appear to move the story along. There’s nothing superfluous in John Grisham’s writing — not a thought, not a word (except maybe “pursuant to”). But other writers have mastered the craft of writing suspense novels. Lots of them.

What John Grisham brings to his work as a writer — other than his deep knowledge of the law and its application in the South — is more than just craft. For one thing, he clearly has a deep-seated passion for justice. The Confession, like other memorable stories he’s told in writing, is a loud cry for the ideals of our legal system to be put into practice. When Grisham tells the story of a young man — and, for that matter, his family and his community — victimized by a corrupt system, he’s relating to us a true story of America today. He strikes a deep chord of recognition in us all, because we’ve heard that story before, again and again, on our television screens and in our newspapers. And the details of the story don’t matter, because we know in our hearts that the unprincipled police officers and prosecutors and judges, the self-seeking politicians, the heartless insurance executives, and the greedy lawyers that populate Grisham’s books are the people we believe are running our lives.

John Grisham has emerged as one of the premier chroniclers of our time because he’s telling our story.

ISBN-10: 0385528043

ISBN-13: 978-0385528047

ASIN: B0042XA37Q

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Filed under Crime Novels, Mysteries & Thrillers