|Jan/Feb 2013 Reviews & Interviews|
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Harper Collins. 2012. 307 pp.
The current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced their share of memoirs and nonfiction, but significant fiction inspired by the 11-year-long Global War on Terror has had a longer gestation period. Nine years after the invasion of Iraq, Ben Fountain has taken on the task of examining the war from a fictional perspective in his first novel, Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk. Its title character, Billy Lynn, is a 19-year-old Army Specialist propelled to overnight celebrity by his heroism at the Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal. When a superior force of insurgent fighters ambush Bravo Company's convoy, an embedded camera crew from Fox News captures the firefight on film, and the footage quickly goes viral. The Army moves quickly to take advantage of the good press, rushing Billy and the seven other surviving members of his squad back to the U.S. to embark on a "Victory Tour" in the tradition of the Second World War's Bond Tours. The bulk of the novel takes place on the tour's last day, when Billy and the rest of the squad are scheduled to be honored at halftime on the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day game before being shipped back to Iraq to complete their original deployment. Fountain follows Billy and the Bravos as they spend their final day in the U.S. dealing with the public's well-meaning but tasteless praise of their service and taking advantage of their last opportunity to find alcohol, love, or the higher purpose behind their involvement in the war before returning to combat.
Though Karl Marlantes's cover blurb trumpets the book as "The Catch-22 of the Iraq War," Slaughterhouse-Five might be the more apt comparison. Fountain's broad satire of the civilian world's myriad reactions to the Bravos has more in common with Vonnegut's ironic sense of humanism than Heller's attack on military bureaucracy. Moreover, like the similarly-named Billy Pilgrim, Billy Lynn is a bit of a blank canvas. An uneducated teenager from a small town in Texas, Billy spends much of the novel deferring to the wisdom of the older non-coms while attempting to figure himself out. Despite his hero status, Billy still acts like what he is: a typical confused 19-year-old. His introspective shyness allows him to function as the straight man for the novel's wilder characters to play against while also allowing Fountain a way of charting Billy's gradual progression towards true adulthood.
The novel's greatest strength, however, lies not in its characters but in its broad satiric swipes at a variety of civilian targets. The book does not aim at any particular institution so much as it pokes fun at the general inability of civilians to relate to combat soldiers and the pretension of those who pretend to. Fountain takes jabs at everyone from the fast-talking Hollywood producers who would have Hilary Swank play a double-role as both Billy and his Sergeant (since having an A-List "name" to splash across the top of a movie poster trumps minor details like gender) to the thinly-veiled caricature of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who would do anything to support the troops so long as that does not include paying them a fair price for the life rights to their story.
The most biting satire in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk does not come at the expense of wealthy, high-profile targets like Hollywood agents and oil executives, but at that of the average civilians who constantly barrage Billy Lynn and the rest of the Bravos with their self-congratulatory and oblivious support. As experienced by the Bravos, the support offered up by the general public consists solely of empty platitudes. It rarely extends as far as actions, or even the willingness to genuinely listen to what the Bravos might have to say. By the time the novel catches up with them, the Bravos have politely borne these exchanges so many times that the individual conversations devolve into a kind of jingoistic white noise, the words themselves becoming mere syllables long since stripped of any particular meaning. Fountain represents these encounters with broad swatches of blank page separating the buzzwords and phrases that make up this meaningless praise. The Bravos have heard the phrases so many time that "freedom," "sacrifice," "values," and "troops" have no more meaning to them than "terrRist," "nina leven," and "currj." The phrase that best describes the civilians in Fountain's book is out of touch, completely unaware of what the Bravos have gone through or how hollow their words ring even as they pat themselves on the back for having "supported" such heroes.
For the sake of the Victory Tour, the Bravos are forced to politely endure the attentions of their well-wishers until the civilians move along and they can return to being what they really are: young soldiers more concerned with sneaking beers behind their Sergeant's back and attempting to find female companionship than the larger meanings of "freedom" and "currj." The sections devoted to Bravo's repetitive encounters with their self-satisfied boosters are among the novel's best.
Though Fountain's occasionally shaky grasp of military details betrays his own civilian background, and the obligatory meditations on the nature of war fall a bit flat, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk successfully captures the voice of young soldiers and the absurd nature of the "support" they receive from clueless civilians. It may be a bit premature to anoint Fountain as the Joseph Heller for the 21st century, but Billy Lynn is certainly a promising first novel and a worthy entry in the still-emerging genre of Iraq War literature.