Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Author: Ben Fountain
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of Publication: May 1, 2012
Pages: 320

     When the canon of literature which arises from the war on terror is finally assembled, I would suspect that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk would be one of the first included.  It has already been called "the Catch-22 of the Iraq War" by none other than Karl Marlantes.  It was a National Book Critics Circle Award (Fiction) winner in 2012.  The movie version, directed by two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain" and "The Life of Pi"), will be released November, 2016.  This is a fantastic novel.

     The story line is fairly basic but intriguing.  Billy Lynn is one of seven surviving members of Bravo Company, whose heroics in Iraq were captured on film by an embedded journalist.  These soldiers are brought back to the United States for a "victory tour" to drum up support in the homeland for the Iraq War.  The tour culminates with the Bravo Company being included (along with Beyonce) in the halftime show  of the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.  The entire novel tells the story of that Thanksgiving Day, with flashbacks exploring Billy's life story and the events which led to the Bravo Company being anointed with "hero" status.

     The over-riding theme of the book is cruel irony.  It is ironic that several of these young men, not even old enough to drink alcohol during the festivities, are in the Army as an alternative to jail.  Circumstances turn them into media heroes.  It is ironic that these soldiers are feted by a gaggle of Texas oil men fat cats, most of whom used influence and money to dodge their generation's war.  It is the cruelest irony that the government is returning the Bravo company to Iraq after their "victory tour" to complete their tour of duty.  The book painfully exposes the absurd contrast of the normalcy of American life contrasted to the desperate battles our soldiers are fighting half a world away.  Even more ridiculous is the public's obsession with sports as well as with celebrity status.

     The books is far from a comedy, but it is infused with black humor.  At one point several of the soldiers sneak off with one of the waitstaff at Cowboys Stadium to smoke a joint.  When one sounds a note of caution another replies "What are they gonna' do?  Send us back to Iraq?"  Billy has an hours long romance with one of the Cowboy cheerleaders. This relationship ends poorly when the young lady, enamored with Billy's celebrity/hero status, backs off of any commitment when she learns he is headed back to combat.
     This book succeeds on many levels.  It is the story of a troubled young man who is swept up into a media circus.  It shines a harsh, critical light on an American citizenry which is more intensely concerned about a football game and a glitzy halftime show than the fact that their country is involved in a war and that their young men and women are being killed or changed beyond belief.  It succeeds as statement regarding futility of modern politics and warfare.  It is not anti-war as much as it is anti-hypocrite and anti-politics.

     It is rare to find a work of fiction which is both entertaining and thought provoking.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk accomplishes both with flourish and style.

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