9. Billy Lynn's Long Half Time WalkBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The cover of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
trumpets it as Catch-22
for the Iraq War. While that's the hyperbole you'd expect from a cover blurb, there's an element of truth in it. The book does hold a mirror up to US society and the rather strange way that many Americans related to the war in Iraq as something noble and admirable, but not something they needed to actually make any sacrifices for, or get personally involved in.
Billy Lynn is an infantry grunt who gets involved in a battle that is captured on video by an embedded camera team. He and the rest of his Bravo squad are filmed rushing to the rescue of a fallen comrade and wiping out an insurgent cell against great odds. After screening on Fox News, the video goes viral and Bravo are American heroes du jour
The Bravo squad are brought back home for a Victory Tour, which is pretty transparently a war propaganda exercise. Fountain gently mocks the earnestness with which rich Americans cozy up to the Bravos and make lots of noises about thanking them for their sacrifice and supporting the troops. Yet when the rights are discussed for a Hollywood film about Bravo's accomplishments, there is surprising little eagerness to thank and support them in any material sense.
Most of the book takes place on the last day of the Tour, where the Bravos are the guests of the Dallas Cowboys at a game. The owner and his coterie fawn all over the soldiers and wheel them around in a fashion that is blatantly about using their heroics to promote the game. Meanwhile the film rights negotiations are stalled, the soldiers are getting drunk and stroppy, and Billy is falling in love with a cheerleader while his sister hounds him via text to desert. All this occurs while Billy is keenly aware that the next day he will be winging his way bcd to Iraq, with no certainty that he will survive.
Fountain does a splendid job of juxtaposing the romanticised view of the soldiers' heroics held by the Stateside war supporters, who gush their support without ever dreaming of making a real contribution, with the reality of these rough-and-tumble poorly-educated street kids who are honestly described by their sergeant to one fan's horror as "cold-blooded killers".
Billy himself is a really sympathetic character; a poorly-educated juvenile criminal who signed up to avoid jail and then found himself a Youtube hero without even understanding why. He tries to puzzle through the reactions to Bravo's battle and reconcile them with his own experience. As he does so, you suspect that even as a 19 year old, there is a battle-hardened wisdom in Billy that the wheelers and dealers who try to exploit him will never attain.
Fountain's book does not go near Heller in terms of nailing the insanity of war, but he does an excellent job of capturing the emptiness of the "support-the-troops" rhetoric from people who do nothing more than watch the war on TV. If I would fault this book, I think it would be that Fountain doesn't do more with the actual battle. I was expecting him to flesh the battle out as the plot developed to give us more insight into Billy and his comrades-in-arms, but Fountain drops it about one-third of the way through and chooses instead to focus on events at the game. I also think more could have been done with the sub-plot regarding Billy's temptation to desert, which was pretty cursorily dealt with. These are not major concerns however; the book is still an excellent read.View all my reviews