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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

January 1, 2014

billy_lynn

This was my favorite read from 2013. It begins with a limo ride—the eight surviving members of Bravo Company, a group of U.S. Army soldiers, are on their way to Texas Stadium for the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, during which they will be honored for their heroism in Iraq. It is part of a two-week publicity tour after an imbedded Fox News camera crew filmed an intense firefight between Bravo and insurgents, instantly transforming Bravo Company into American heroes. And at the center of that is Silver Star recipient and Texas native, 19-year-old Specialist William Lynn.

As for the details of the fight, they’re a little foggy. We know that one of their guys, Shroom, was injured and being carried away by the enemy. We know that Billy charged after them, firing, possibly killing the enemy soldiers, rescuing his friend. We know that Shroom then died from his injuries. When asked by reporters about the act of courage, Billy is nonchalant. Later, he wonders, “Is this what they mean by courage? Simply doing all the things you were trained to do, albeit everything at once and very fast.”

Through a series of flashbacks, we get fragments of the battle. And we get flashbacks to Billy’s visit home, where his family is dealing with crippling medical bills from his emotionally distant father’s failing health and from a car accident that left his sister’s face in need of several reconstructive surgeries. But most of the book is what takes place between that initial limo ride and the Bravos piling into another limo to be driven away after the game.

What happens in between? Lots of drinking, walking around, observing. A couple near fights and a couple of actual fights. Hanging out with the Cowboys owner and his Texas socialite friends in the luxury box. Meeting the team, support staff, cheerleaders. A press conference. Actually being included in the halftime show with Destiny’s Child. Ongoing negotiations over a possible movie deal. And during it all, Billy’s sister keeps calling to try to convince him to talk to some people she’s been in contact with, an organization that specializes in getting soldiers out of their commitment. She wants him to go AWOL, rather than redeploy the next day.

There is so much good stuff packed into the few hours that Bravo Company spends at Texas Stadium that it’s hard to resist the urge to summarize everything. There are so many small moments that speak volumes. When Billy’s in the locker room meeting the players, a group of them ask about what kind of guns he carries, ask if he’s killed anyone, and then in all seriousness ask if he could arrange for them to come over there and shoot some Iraqis. There is a moment when Billy looks at the players and observes: “They are the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought—send them to fight the war!”

And here is the crucial nexus of this novel—the intersection of everything that a young soldier goes through (“You know things most of the rest of us will never know,” one elderly gentleman says to Billy), all the risk and death and fear and courage and duty and PTSD and trying to deal with all of that at just 19 years old…the intersection of that and the commercialism of the halftime spectacle and everything it represents, with all its empty pomp and showmanship and rah-rah-RAH, superstars singing under pyrotechnic skies and money beaming across the globe via TV satellites and the disconnect between risking your life to protect America and everything that she stands for, which is, in large part, spending money. As Billy observes, “Somewhere along the way America became a mall with a country attached.”

There is an improbable encounter with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader—the masculine ideal of the American Soldier meeting the feminine ideal of the American Cheerleader. It is something that should throw the whole novel off the rails, but it is so pitch perfect (the whole novel is, really), that it actually works. It both reinforces the theme of image over all else while giving Billy a vulnerability, a naiveté, that reminds us that despite what he has seen on the battlefield, he’s still just a boy with dreams.

Fountain walks so many lines with this novel. It is funny and cynical and satirical but heartfelt and heart-wrenching and sentimental, never too much. The characters, the dialogue, the moments are rendered so spot-on believable that even the unbelievable moments seem real. This book probably wouldn’t make a great movie, as much of the brilliance is in how Billy observes the world around him as he grapples, here at this crossroads of his young life, with some very big questions. Seeing that struggle is what makes him so likable, so sympathetic, so unforgettable a character. Fantastic book. One of my new favorites.

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