Friday, November 9, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A NovelBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this because it is a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I never would have picked it up based on the description, because I don't generally read war novels or watch war movies. This year, two of the five finalists have to do with soldiers recently returned from the war.

Billy Lynn is one of the Bravo Squad, home from one tour in Iraq on a "victory tour" after an exciting day dealing with insurgents was filmed and broadcast by Fox News. The entire novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day, most of it at a Dallas Cowboys football game where the living members of the Bravo Squad are going to be honored.

Despite my disinterest in the subject matter, I have to applaud Ben Fountain for superb writing. He captures people very well, and every character in the novel reads realistically. Nobody is cut/dry black/white, but everyone and everything is far more complicated. He shows a deep understanding of the internal conflicts in being a soldier and how difficult coming back home can be. The best moments for me were when people would talk to Billy and he would zone out; suddenly there would only be a few words on the page, generic patriotic words parroted by well meaning Texans, in an accent. It is like you get to experience exactly what he is hearing (and more importantly, what he's tuning out).

Less believable were some of the side story lines, such as the serious one-day romance with the cheerleader and the movie option of their experience. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected.

"Hector is nodding. 'That's sort of my whole point. What I got out here sucks, so I might as well join.'
'What else is there,' Mango says.
'What else is there,' Hector agrees.
'What else is there,' Billy echoes, but he's thinking of home."

This is one of the bits I read out loud because this woman is a very minor character, but this is a vivid depiction:
"...Then he's being introduced to Mrs. Norm, a well-maintained lady of a certain age with a poufed-out cloud of dark hair. She's pretty. Her dark violet eyes don't quite focus. She smiles but it's purely social, gives nothing of herself...."

Near the end, as Billy thinks about heading back to Iraq:
"Just assume you're going to die, so they were instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative! Roger that! Sir yes sir! Carnage awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved, the poor sad doomed honorably fucked front line who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here! A harsh thing for any young man to hear, but this is part of every youth's education in the world, learning the risks are never fully revealed until you commit."

Harsh, but Ben Fountain isn't afraid to spell out the bleak future that these soldiers are not able to escape. It colors every minute of their interactions in the states.

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