Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
From Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain:
Open quote 

Look! Look! Check out the Jumbotron! And there on the screen loom the eight operational Bravos literally bigger than life, plus Albert, who's smiling like a proud new papa. Small pockets of applause spark off here and there. The Bravos assume postures of masculine nonchalance. Mainly they're trying not to stare at themselves on the screen, but so pumped with the moment is Sykes that he starts mouthing off and flashing gangsta signs. To a man Bravo tells him to shut the fuck up, but after a moment the screen cuts to a flags-waving, bombs-bursting cartoon graphic against a background of starry outer space, and from within these inky depths enormous white letters suddenly zoom to the fore AMERICA'S TEAM PROUDLY HONORS AMERICAN HEROES."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

This critically-acclaimed 2012 bestseller has a Dallas connection. Much of it is set at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. Billy Lynn is a member of Bravo squad, a group of Iraq war heroes on a public relations tour, with stops at the White House and now Texas Stadium.

Comparisons to classic novels such as Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five are inevitable. There are some elements of black comedy and anti-war satire in Billy Lynn. The novel skewers Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones ("Norm Oglesby") as a scheming rich Texan, exploiting these soldiers to promote his football team and business interests. Bravo squad is not innocent, willingly going along with all the photo ops, getting drunk on Jack and Cokes in the owner's private suite, horsing around with each other, flirting with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and dreaming of a Hollywood movie based on their story.

Billy Lynn knows in his heart it's all bullshit. War is not glorious. He's not a hero. He led the charge, instinctively, because that's what he was trained to do. He's only nineteen, helplessly bounced from a troubled home life to an Army tour in Iraq to rubbing elbows with Beyoncé in a packed stadium in front of a national television audience. Billy Lynn has control of none of this. His knowledge that this whole publicity tour is bullshit doesn't make him feel superior. It makes him despair. Except for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders part.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk won't make readers understand what it's like to be on patrol in war-torn Iraq during the peak of the insurgency. To his credit, Ben Fountain doesn't even attempt this. But Fountain does a masterful job of making readers understand that Billy Lynn and his Bravo mates are no longer like the rest of us and will never be again, that war profoundly changes people, that a simple return from Iraq doesn't put things back the way they were before. Perhaps Fountain's portrayal of rich, clueless Texans is a little too pat, too stereotypical, but this isn't their story. It's Billy Lynn's, and he's fully drawn, fully believable. He's not a hero, he's not a villain. He's no longer a youth, not yet a man. He's not wise, he's not naive. Or rather, he's all of these and more. Ben Fountain has created an Everyman for America in the 21st century.


"No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die."

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