Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel, by Ben Fountain (Ecco; 2012)
Alas, some critically acclaimed books are curiously mediocre, as I pointed out in my review of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. But it’s important to note that sometimes much-praised titles deserve all the fuss. Fountain’s novel is one of them.
The Army’s “Bravo” Squad (squads get numbers, not alphabet names, but Fountain explains the Bravo exception) gets caught in an Iraq firefight during the Bush years, but unlike similar mini-battles going on all across the war zone, this one is captured by a Fox camera team. Bravo’s surviving members become America’s newest pop stars, destined we sense, for no more than fifteen minutes of fame. But during those fifteen minutes they’re sent back to the U.S. to get congratulated to the max in one ceremony after another. Yet if America really loves these kids as it professes, wouldn’t it have to be nuts to send them into a fiery cauldron for no good reason?
We watch Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old Texan who made it into the Army one step ahead of the cops, try to get to the bottom of a puzzle. How could we do this to him and his buddies? There’s dramatic tension aplenty because after all the festivities, Bravo is slated to go straight back to Iraq to finish its fifteen-month tour. But first it has to get through a Dallas Cowboys home game. There’s no better place to depict just how schizophrenically daffy America can get. As the hours count down we are made to see, through the eyes of Billy, more about America than many Americans want to know. There’s intelligence and lovely language on every page. And humor aplenty. Karl Marlantes, one of the best chroniclers of the Vietnam War, calls this the Iraq War’s Catch 22.
As a novelist I find it terribly discouraging when a whiny, pedestrian effort like Atocha Station is pronounced profound by experts. Fountain’s gem and its earned acclaim is a wonderful counterbalance to all that.
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