One tag you might see attached to Ben Fountain’s outrageously good debut novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” is “satire.” While on the surface that makes a kind of sense, given the story’s stretched-out one-day structure, bleedingly vivid characters and scabrous riffs on everything from vacuous Hollywood to that capitalist wet-dream we call the NFL, on the whole it doesn’t do justice to this novel’s piercing truths about war’s blowback in the soldier’s psyche. For a reflective nineteen-year-old temporarily home from Iraq in order to be paraded around on a media-saturated “Victory Tour,” our homeland’s sickening excesses of consumption and complacent patriotism aren’t merely ridiculous—they’re real.
Billy Lynn is a “private in the infantry, the lowest of the low.” After he and his squad, “Bravo,” a raucous group of soldiers led by inscrutable Sergeant Dime, survive a hellacious firefight with Iraqi insurgents—caught on tape by embedded Fox News reporters—they are brought home for two weeks to act the part of heroes for the benefit of the Bush administration. The novel takes place over the course of one freezing Thanksgiving day at the end of the furlough when Bravo visits Dallas for the Cowboys game; the halftime show stars Destiny’s Child. Bravo’s story is co-opted by a veteran film producer on the hunt for a feel-good blockbuster (“We’re gonna ‘Platoon’ it,” Billy overhears him say into his cell. “Ensemble plus star, hell yes it works. Hilary’s extremely interested.”) and by strangers who swarm uncomfortable Bravo with gratitude, awe and vicarious fascination. To Billy, their platitudes merge into a verbal smear: “nina leven…troops…currj…support.”
Bravo operates as a plural Army of one, a choral narrator providing some of the funniest lines of fiction you’ll read this year. But Billy’s internal voice is the heart of this novel, and it’s an astonishing achievement, flickering between humor and despair, pride and fear, ruminations on the friend he couldn’t save and still-technically-a-virgin performance anxiety about the hot Christian cheerleader coming on to him. And what about his sister urging him to go AWOL? Through Billy, we see what this war does to a young man’s perspective:
“He’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory […] This is a truth so brutally self-evident that he can’t fathom why it’s not more widely perceived, hence his contempt for the usual public shock and outrage when a particular situation goes to hell. The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”
Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is devastating and hilarious. It’s a standout contribution to the literature of war. (Emily Gray Tedrowe)
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
By Ben Fountain
Ecco, 320 pages, $26