Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What We're Reading

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,
by Ben Fountain

This is an impressive first novel, a semi-farce that explores the nationwide “Victory Tour” of the eight men of Bravo Squad who become celebrated heroes of the Iraq War when a ferocious firefight in which they were engaged is captured in a three-minute, forty-three second video by an embedded Fox News crew. The Bush administration has planned a media-intensive national itinerary for Bravo, intended to rekindle support for the war, culminating in their participation in the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The author has us view events through the eyes of the Silver Star-winning hero of the battle, Specialist William Lynn, a 19-year-old native of Texas. The structuring of the book around the game’s halftime mirrors the “halftime” circumstances of the Bravo Squad itself, for their tour is only a brief interlude in their return to active combat duty in Iraq. Shadowing their tour are the ongoing and hilarious twists in the squad’s efforts to make a deal to sell its story to a major movie studio with the help of a famous Hollywood producer.

Some reviews have described Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as satire, but satire has a hard edge that allows the reader a comfortable distance from the characters, events or circumstances that are in the pillory. This novel is heartbreaking. We develop empathy for all the finely drawn characters of the squad. One of the memorable scenes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk occurs when Billy and the squad are in the Cowboys’ locker room before the game, getting a chance to meet famous players. The million-dollar NFL players ask the grunts what it's like to kill someone. They want to know if there is not some way they can volunteer in the off season to work with the army and go to Iraq to waste a few insurgents, proposing in effect, a sort of safari. This is the book’s sharpest and most acidic exposition of its major theme, and representative of its method, where things have the quality of being absurd yet we have to admit them as entirely plausible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an exploration of American culture at a certain place in time, one that looks at the dark nature and values of the country that has sent these soldiers to war and exposes a critical disconnect between its leaders and citizens and its soldiers. It illuminates misunderstandings born of national hungers and manipulated mythologies that seem to have little to do with the reality on the ground or the terrible experience of those the country has asked to fight. We come to understand that the honor the nation accords its heroes is conditional, self-serving, and meretricious. Bravo Squad is celebrated only as long as it is useful in the competing agendas of “players,” and its heroes will be exploited as mercilessly as anyone else when money and politics are at issue. The world of the squad turns out to be a more embracing and authentic place than the nation that has sent these soldiers to war, and Billy Lynn an everyman that has become, paradoxically, an alien in his own country.

If fiction, among its many merits and rewards, has a hierarchy of virtues, certainly a novel that is able to articulate for us the feelings and thoughts of who we were at a particular place in time, to look just beneath our dissonant cultural iconography and illuminate for us the values we hold deeply and often so ambiguously, achieves something noble and gives us a portrait of the time that no recitation of historical facts or events can with comparable complexity or feeling achieve. The world is what it is when it is what it is, and a writer who addresses his time both passionately and urgently creates something of enduring importance for his contemporary readers. Ben Fountain has done that.

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