Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fiction Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Although I had a big stack of books waiting to be read at home, I grabbed yet another off my library’s recent paperback release shelf because I had heard it was unique and well-written. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain didn’t disappoint; I was blown away by the emotional power of this unusual novel and engrossed by its rapid pace.

The entire novel covers just one single day in the life of Billy Lynn, a 19-year old serving in the Army in Iraq. The men of Bravo squad, including Billy, have become overnight heroes in the U.S. after a fierce battle of theirs was captured on video that quickly went viral. Yanked from their post in Iraq, without any time to come to grips with what happened or mourn their fallen comrade, the eight remaining, uninjured men of Bravo are on a whirlwind Victory Tour across the U.S., ostensibly to honor their bravery though the real purpose seems to be to drum up support for the continuing war.

On this particular day, Thanksgiving and the last day of their U.S. tour, Bravo is being hosted by the Dallas Cowboys for an NFL game. In 48 hours, they will be shipped back to Iraq and back to the insanity of the war. Throughout the day, Billy texts with his sister who wants him to go AWOL, listens to the continuous discussion of a possible movie of their experiences where Hilary Swank would play him, stands next to Beyonce during the halftime show, and even shares a moment of connection with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Most of the men, like Billy, are still teens or barely out of their teens, and their heads are spinning with their sudden fame and the incongruency of being treated like royalty one day and being sent back to their tents in the desert among falling mortar the next.

In fact, this novel is all about incongruency and the absurdity of their situation. As Billy muses about their fate during the long wait for the game to begin, we learn the details of their famous battle and of their past two surreal weeks touring the country. Countless people approach the soldiers in Cowboy stadium to express their gratitude and support, as the men struggle to make sense of it all. Billy’s scrambled thoughts at this overwhelming input are sometimes aptly expressed simply as a jumble of words swirling through his ears and mind. Somehow, in the space of this single day, the author manages to cover everything from politics to war to family to America’s obsession with football and celebrity.

That’s one of the surprises of this unique novel. It’s not just about war or Iraq or terrorism. It’s about America and as much about the civilians with whom the men interact as it is about the soldiers themselves. It’s often tongue-in-cheek, frequently crude, sometimes hilariously funny, and sometimes heart-breaking. The novel takes the reader through the same jumbled mix of emotions that Billy himself is experiencing. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a powerful emotional journey, exploring issues both personal and universal, all in the space of a single, surreal day.

307 pages, Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint


1 comment:

  1. This book absolutely blew me away. The way in which Fountain conveys the sheer absurdity of the modern war experience and the surreality of Bravo's situation in particular is sublime. I recommend this book to everyone who will listen.