Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ben Fountain writes about the Iraq War without leaving Texas


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (307 pages, Ecco, $14.99) is the most stunning Iraq War novel to have appeared.  Bravo Squad, so-called because of a misnomer that sticks, has had a visible and very highly publicized success in Iraq and has returned home for honors and celebration.  We meet them on the last day of their leave, as they are feted at a Dallas Cowboys football game.  They are guests of the owners and they have a role to play during the halftime show.

The novel takes place only during, as well as immediately before and after, the football game.  There are a few flashbacks to a day or two before, but they only help to amplify our understanding of the main character, Billy Lynn.  Billy is a nineteen-year-old from Texas who was one of the key players in a battle that resulted in one of his good friends being killed in the field.

Billy is a slow thinking young man, but he is good looking enough to find himself often in the spot light.  When he has to speak, he does; and sometimes what he says is profound.  Billy started thinking more because of Shroom, the friend who was killed.  Shroom told Billy what to read, how to carry himself, how to be self-aware.  His death has affected Billy deeply, and the sorrow of that loss infuses the entire narrative.

Billy and his squad are busy knocking back whatever form of alcohol they can get their hands on.  Their sergeant, Dime, checks up on them from time to time, but it seems that mostly they do what they want.  After all, they are being wined and dined as victors from Iraq, and everyone around them in Texas and elsewhere wants the reassurance that what they did in Iraq has larger significance for the war.

One person who buys this line is Albert, their now-resident Hollywood producer who is promising to bring in a deal.  As he throws around huge numbers that a film deal would bring to the soldiers, they get off on all sorts of fantasizing about who might play what roles and how their story will look when turned into a Hollywood project.

They are all asked, but Billy is especially asked, how they did what they did; what it felt like; and whether they were scared.  Billy has a rote answer, but each time he is asked, it becomes clear that he has no language to describe the intensity of that moment of holding his dying friend in his arms.

As the game gets started and the soldiers settle into their comfortable seats in the owner's box, sipping Jack and Coke, Billy locks eyes with one of the cheerleaders that will be performing during the game.  This cheerleader seems to be interested in Billy, and when they meet later on, she clearly seems to be ready to spend time with him.  She gives Billy something to fantasize about while he and his buddies are getting hammered during the game.

She plays in his mind against the memories of his time with his family, especially his sister Kathryn, who is trying to persuade him to resist the army’s demand that he return to Iraq.

Fountain's novel is a wonderful satire of the world of the Dallas football club and the ranks of Americans who are trying to support this war without knowing anything about what it is.  At the same time, it is a deeply touching story about a young soldier growing up through his experience of war, especially as he has this distance on his own actions and tries to put everything together as he prepares to step onto the halftime stage in the football stadium.

Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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