Excoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives. Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show. Why this particular group of eight? Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself. A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.
It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight. There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.
A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution. But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star. But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death. Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.
Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used. Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country. All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year. It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.
In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking. He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it. He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.
Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed. Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”). Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum. The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions. One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.
Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.