David Hebblethwaite's Reviews > Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
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Oct 25, 12

Read in July, 2012

A new novel of the Iraq war comes from US author Ben Fountain, a debut novelist in his fifties. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the star of ‘Bravo squad’, who became the toast of America after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and the video went viral. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set on the final day of the soldiers’ ‘Victory Tour’ organised by the government, when they will be guests of honour at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, before returning to Iraq.

Fountain’s main subject could be summed up, I think, as the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home – it’s all about stories again. The people he meets on the Victory Tour treat Billy like a hero:

They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness (pp. 39-40).


But for Billy, what he did on that day in Iraq was – well, just something he had to do:

Billy did not seek the heroic deed, no. The deed came for him, and what he dreads like a cancer in his brain is that the deed will seek him out again (p. 40).


Already, new realities are being woven around those three minutes in the life of Bravo squad. Technically, even the name ‘Bravo squad’ is incorrect, but that’s what they’ve been dubbed by the media, and so that is who they now are. Movie rights are being negotiated: Hilary Swank is interested in playing Billy, and the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant in the face of a possible film deal. So, the boys of Bravo are losing control of their destiny, but they’re used to it: ‘manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ (p. 28)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of those books which I had to keep stopping reading to make note of something interesting; I don’t find myself doing that as often as I’d like. I’m still left with a nagging sense, though, that the plot of Billy Lynn is not quite enough to support a novel of this length – but there is a nicely-done sub-plot in which Billy falls for a cheerleader at the stadium, which has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a teenage crush that begins suddenly but may not have the chance to last.

But it’s Fountain’s prose to which I keep returning. One of my favourite sections in the novel comes when Bravo squad are introduced to the footballers and Billy sees behind the scenes: there’s a clear contrast drawn between these enormous men with all facilities on hand, and the soldiers of Bravo squad. As his Victory Tour comes to an end, Billy reflects on the implications of the discrepancy between the image and reality of war:

For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force…Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets (p. 306).


Whether in Fountain’s novel or Hassan Blasim’s collection, the stories win – and, so often, it’s the characters who lose.
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