Saturday, March 23, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Another novel about the war in Iraq might not be the tasty treat you've been craving but Ben Fountain’s absurd tale, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award finalist, is an absolute must.  The Pulitzer Prize Committee improbably chose not to award a fiction prize in 2012.  This April they’ll be hard pressed to deny a winner with titles like Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and, yes, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk all deserving of the prize.  

In the novel, every television in the U.S showed the Iraq "battle of Al-Ansakar Canal” via tape from an embedded Fox News crew and now the eight survivors of Bravo Squad are America’s most popular heroes. Thus the Bush administration has sent them on a two-week victory tour before they return to battle. The book is set on a rainy Thanksgiving Day at the end of that tour as the Bravos are attending a Dallas Cowboys game and will appear at halftime along with Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. Billy Lynn, Specialist William Lynn, is a nineteen-year-old Texas kid who enlisted to avoid a prison sentence for destroying his sister’s fiancé’s car after the fiancé dumped her while she was recovering from a disfiguring accident.  Billy was an empty vessel eager to learn about the world and Shroom, his sergeant, educated him before dying in Billy’s arms.  One of the most remarkable qualities of this novel is Fountain’s ability to make Shroom such an engaging figure though we only know him through Billy’s memories.  Billy’s certain he’ll never go back to school even though he yearns to learn about the world but knows that school isn’t where he’ll find that knowledge.  “If there is real knowledge to be had in the Texas public schools he never found it, and only lately has he started to feel the loss, the huge criminal act of his state-sanctioned ignorance as he struggles to understand the wider world.  How it works, who gains, who loses, who decides.  It is not a casual thing, this knowledge.  In a way it might be everything. A young man needs to know where he stands in the world, not just as a matter of basic human dignity but as determinants in the ways and means of survival and what you might hope to gain by application of honest effort.”

In one Thanksgiving Day, Billy will learn about himself and as he learns, we’ll see through his family, the Texas elite, the people hoping to make money selling his story, a cheerleader, and his fellow Bravo brothers – that war is as much about the people “untouched” at home as it is about those who fight.   Billy Lynn’s portraits of the people he encounters at the game explode with universal truth that’s impossible to ignore. When Billy meets tanned, glamorous multi-millionaires who are nothing like anyone he’s ever encountered he thinks: “they are different, these Americans.  They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living – gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren’t quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style, of say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter.  It’s not that he’s jealous so much as profoundly terrified.  Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that’s how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby, homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires.  Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it is something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars.  That is what he truly envies these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point, and at this moment he feels so sorry for himself that he could break right down and cry.  I’m a good soldier, he tells himself, aren’t I a good soldier?  So what does it mean when a good soldier feels this bad?”

Billy Lynn is a good soldier but even he gets tired of it all. “He gets tired of living with the daily beat-down of it, not just the normal animal fear of pain and death but the uniquely human fear of fear itself like a CD stuck on skip-repeat, an ever-narrowing self-referential loop that may well be a form of madness. . . So these are Billy’s thoughts while he makes small talk about the war.  He tries to keep it low-key, but people steer the conversation toward drama and passion. They just assume if you’re a Bravo you’re here to talk about the war, because, well, if Barry Bonds were here they’d talk about baseball. . . Here at home the war is a problem to be solved with correct thinking and proper resource allocation. . .”

Fountain imbues Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk with a wicked sense of humor and a series of improbable events that sometimes make you laugh out loud.  Such gallows humor allows the reader to continue to take in Billy’s tale and remain sane.  You owe it to yourself and those who serve in your name to read this book.  Don’t just skim it; devour it, embody it, make it a part of you.  It deserves that attention.

Summing it Up: Read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk because it will be one of the most important books of this decade.  Read it because you can and because you’ll savor Fountain’s skill while wondering how you might react if one day you met someone like Billy. Read it because it’s so evocative that you’ll find yourself in the bowels of Cowboy Stadium with a hangover wondering who you are.  Get on your knees and beg your book club to choose it so you can process it together.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Sushi, Book Club

Publication date: May 1, 2012

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