Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain (New York: Ecco, 2012. 320 pp)
Ben Fountain is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and two Texas Institute of Letters Short Story awards, among other honors and awards. His fiction has been published in Harper’s, the Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, and his nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and the New York Times Sunday Magazine, among other publications. His coverages of post-earthquake Haiti was nationally broadcast on the radio show This American Life. He and his family live in Dallas, Texas.
A Slice of America
If forced to label one event as the essence of America, it would be hard to argue with Thanksgiving Day football with the Dallas Cowboys. It’s got everything. It’s bigger than life both by location (Texas is huge) and by environment (the venue is gigantic). It is football, the one sport we refuse to share with the rest of the world. It is cheerleaders. It is the Bible Belt.
It is the perfect end to a victory tour.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk tells the story of Billy Lynn, a soldier in the Bravo unit. He and his fellow soldiers gained fame after Fox News cameras captured the avulsed action titled, “the Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal.”
The Victory Tour
After the conflict, the Army sends the Bravo boys home for a Victory Tour. Over the course of two weeks, the soldiers make the rounds visiting the bastions of media, photo-ops with the well-to-do, and even a visit to the White House. In all of these actions, the powers-that-be hope these heroes can renew the vigor for the Iraq War
The tour ends with a Thanksgiving-Day visit to Cowboys Stadium where the Chicago Bears visit the Dallas Cowboys.
The whole novel surrounds this game, beginning in the limo on the way to the stadium:
“There are ten of them in the limo’s plus passenger bay, the eight remaining soldiers of Bravo squad, their PA escort Major Mac, and the movie producer Albert Ratner, who at the moment is hunkered down in BlackBerry position. Counting poor dead Shroom and the grievously wounded Lake there are two Silver Stars and eight Bronze among them, all ten of which defy coherent explanation” (3).
Despite all of this fanfare, there’s a looming dread underneath the surface, and Billy feels it acutely. It’s nice and all to be in the spotlight, and a movie about the Bravo story would be unreal. But, this Victory Tour is not the conclusion of service:
“In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American—football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, ‘Yew ARE America’” (21).
Much like the feeling one receives on a Sunday night with another work week looming, the Bravo squad saunters around the stadium, following Josh, their appointed page. They meet the brash, Texas-sized owner of the Cowboys; they jump in to another press conference; they engage with cheerleaders for a photo op; they meet the players. In between all these stops, the hoi polloi of Cowboyland arrive to smother the soldiers in praise. All this talk, to Billy, equals nothing more than a jumble of noise, thoughtfully displayed by author Ben Fountain:
Having spent two weeks wading through this small talk, Billy owns enough experience to repeat the words these people want to hear.
In the end, all of these activities just give Billy a headache, a theme that emerges consistently throughout the book, like an absurd nod to Joseph Heller and Catch-22.
“Billy’s head is pounding, but Josh, so alert and duteous in other matters, has forgotten his Advil again” (127).
No matter how many times he requests some relief, it never comes. This headache circles back as a reference point throughout the book and it might even point to something even deeper:
“It dawns on Billy that his headache might be purely psychological, the naked ape of his mind asserting itself like the gorilla in that Samsonite commercial” (202).
If you’ve yet to sense the hints, Billy’s not too thrilled about the thought of returning to the front. Despite his hero status, he’s bound to his duty. His family, behind his back, has organized some legal help in case his desires point him toward AWOL. In fact, they have set plans in motion to the point where a car awaits Billy outside Cowboy stadium. Will he stick with his company? Or will his dread around war send him the other direction?
A View on War
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk appears to be the opposite take of the Iraq War as compared to the current pop-culture darling, American Sniper. Where one story details one man’s irrational joy at joining the fight, the other depicts a boy thrown in the spotlight who wants nothing of it. For one, the war requires no moral justification. Evil is evil and good is good. For the other, war is dubious, no matter the justification, and the willfulness of marching into harm’s way is certifiably insane. The cover of my book calls Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk the Catch-22 of the Iraq War and it is truly an apt description.
Stylistically and narratively, this book is good, almost great. An enjoyable read, but only recommended for those critical of war in general.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5