Published by Ecco
Publication date: May 1st 2012
Imagine you are a nineteen-year-old soldier and while stationed in Iraq your squad came under insurgent attack in an isolated area. You commit a heroic act of bravery and leave your vehicle to try and save a friend who is being dragged away by the enemy. A Fox news crew captures the entire attack and when it goes viral you are all brought back to the United States to be honored. The culmination of this tour is on Thanksgiving day at a Dallas Cowboys game and all you want, all you desperately need, is some Advil for your hangover and yet despite repeated requests, in the midst of fervent praise from all sides; food, drink, and even women being pressed on you, no one, not one single person can manage to bring you Advil. The absurdity of this situation is just one of the many that razor through the narrative of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that plumbs the depths of one young soldier’s aching mind as he tries to reconcile the world he sees stateside with the one he’s left behind in Iraq.
It is pretty safe to say that I don’t read a lot of fiction about America’s recent forays into the Middle East nor do I have a lot of familiarity with fiction written from a soldier’s perspective but Fountain emulates the soldiers’ patois and slang, their almost sing-song crudity, so perfectly I could hear their voices as I read. Billy goes to Iraq to avoid going to prison but there is not much in the novel about his life there with the exception of the moments before the attack and the loss of a comrade with whom he’d become close. This is Billy’s reality and Fountain juxtaposes it against the naïve bravado of every self-satisfied American he and his squad meet. They yammer about God’s will being done in Iraq but not one of them would send their child over there to fight. And these young men know it, know that they are expendable because their lives have put them in a position of either having to fight or needing to fight for the paycheck.
Some of the more surreal aspects of the novel involve the football team as the troop is feted by the team’s owner and all its wealthiest fans. Billy and his sergeant are shown the equipment room where hundreds of thousands of dollars of clothing, shoes, helmets, and other gear, designed to protect and pamper the players, are shown off…to men who make do with port-a-potties, limited body armor, and dehydrated meals. Billy can only think
They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought—send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is largely an internal novel and it is thoughts like these that make it clear Billy is under no illusions about the party going on around him. Everything about his situation is unreal and all he wants is one person to talk to him honestly about what is happening and why. Instead, by using some of America’s glitziest economic institutions—the NFL, Hollywood, Madison Avenue—Fountain illustrates, with a grave sensitivity, that honesty is as elusive as Advil for Billy Lynn.
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