“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain (2012) – 307 pages
No other novel I have read captures the way things are in the United States in the 2000s better than “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”. This over-the-top black comedy grabbed me on the first page and didn’t let go until the last.
What better place to honor the soldier heroes of the Iraq War than Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys football team, America’s team, and the epicenter of well-to-do Iraq War boosters? Many prosperous supporters of the Iraq War, all the doctors, dentists, and corporate executives with their wives, including sometimes President George W and Laura Bush congregate here on Sundays to watch their Cowboys play. It becomes immediately apparent that there is a huge gap between the rich and affluent Dallas football fans and the dirt-poor soldiers who had little choice but to become soldiers and go to fight in Iraq. Ben Fountain has found the ideal plot to point out the many absurdities that exist between all those comfortable moneyed supporters of the war and the soldiers who were actually out there fighting in the war.
Billy Lynn is one of the troops in the 2004 battle of Al-Ansakar Canal in Iraq which the embedded Fox News camera crew caught live and showed continually on their network to support the war. Then the George W. Bush administration sends the 8 soldiers of Lynn’s Bravo Company on a two-week Victory Tour of the United States ending at Texas Stadium for Dallas’ Thanksgiving Day game. After that it’s back to Iraq for Bravo Company.
Deal maker Albert accompanies the soldiers, and he is always trying to sell the Bravo Company story to Hollywood as a movie. Hilary Swank is officially interested in their story and is floating the idea of playing both Billy and his Sergeant in the movie.
Meanwhile at the football game, a picture of Bravo Company is put up on the Jumbotron screen every few minutes between advertisements for Ram trucks. Some of the fans come up to the soldiers to greet and thank them during the interminable delays between football plays. The soldiers in Bravo Company wander off frequently to get more booze against their Sergeant’s orders.
“They (the fans) want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they are being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness. One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is their gratitude.”
And then there is halftime as only Texans can do it. Hundreds of cheerleaders, at least six high school marching bands, drill teams in formation, Destiny’s Child with Beyonce performing, the Bravo soldiers onstage, fireworks. A couple of the soldiers in Bravo Company are spooked by all the noise and confusion.
It is not a very sophisticated literary theory, but it just seems to me that an author’s enthusiasm for their own story rubs off on the readers. The writing in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is so energetic and lively it draws you in. Ben Fountain has a knack for finding the perfect metaphor or simile. He describes a pastor who is continually texting Bible passages to Billy as “a used-car salesman in sheep’s clothing.” Then there is Cowboys corporate executive Josh with “every hair, every thread, every crease and pleat in place, as if he’s sheathed in a varnish of pussy-boy perfection.”
One of the blurbs used to sell “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is from Karl Marlantes, author of the great Vietnam War novel, “Matterhorn” who says “The ‘Catch 22’ of the Iraq War”. No, it does not approach ‘Catch 22’, but it is a good wicked start to unraveling what happened to the United States with the Iraq War.