Jessamyn Ayers's Reviews > Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
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's review
Jul 08, 2012

really liked it

Reading Ben Fountain's new novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is like sitting in the bleachers at a child's sporting event. Two distinct voices emerge. First comes the flashy, unabashedly proud voice of the parent who embellishes every action their child has ever completed on or off the field so it becomes evidence of their inevitable athletic success. The second voice, circumspect, observant and discerning, becomes clear only through its silence on the topics the first voice introduces. Fountain's artistry is his balancing of these two voices so that absurdity does not impugn the first voice and passivity does not obscure the second. Through out the novel, Fountain's narrative tension is in maintaining the hope that one will come to understand the other and some kind of philosophical inroads will be made for humanity.

And it's hysterical, too. Laugh-out-loud, wake-up-your-partner-while-they're-sleeping-next-to-you funny.

The core of the book is Bravo squad, an Everyman group of young soldiers who become national heroes after a war journalist posts a video of them winning a surprise insurgent attack. Dime, Mango, Holliday, A-bort, Lodis, Crack, Sykes and the eponymous Billy are brought back to the States to go on an Army-mandated promotional tour as a way to shore up public support for the Iraq war. These orchestrated celebrations of valor and apple-pie values explode through the narrative like a drill sergeant's order. Their last public event of the tour, before being shipped back to the war, is an appearance in the half-time festivities of the Cowboys/Bears football game on Thanksgiving Day.

Through out this Thanksgiving Day, Fountain introduces characters that underscore the deep disconnect between those fighting the war and those who support it from home. From Albert, a once glorious Hollywood producer who is trying to sell the movie rights to the squad's story, to Norm Oglesby, the fictitious owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who postures his own political and business ambitions on the backs of Bravo, Fountain has a spread of characters as rich and complex as an owner's suite buffet.

Billy is an excellent narrator. Earnest, innocent, hopeful in a fundamental ways, he tries his best to make sense of what is going on around him. He finds himself constantly recalling the advice of Shroom, the only casualty of Bravo's fight, who helped Billy settle in when he first arrived in Iraq, and working that advice into a meaningful sensibility about war, perspective and certainty.

Robert Ellsberg writes in his Saints' Guide to Happiness that many stories "illustrate the capacity of suffering or misfortune to disrupt the force of intertia in our lives." This is one of those stories. By examining so many characters and their responses to the war, Fountain gives his readers the opportunity to see the absurdity in treating war as merely a political issue and how doing so keeps people marching along to the drumbeat of their own inertia.
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Bruce Stern Excellent review! Observant of what happens between the lines of the story—Billy's thoughts and contemplations about the path his life follows, and outside of his control, and the absurdities of it.
Thank you for the insightful observations of your review.
(One small correction—Shroom, whose death during the battle while held in Billy's arms is highlighted in the novel, and the soldier-buddy who most affects Billy, was one of two soldiers killed in the battle, not the only one.

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