“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” tells the story of a young soldier spending Thanksgiving in the early years of the Iraq war with the rest of “Bravo Company” as honoured guests of the Dallas Cowboys as part of a “victory tour” to build support for the war. Billy and the Bravos have been propelled into the spotlight by a Fox News video of a firefight of the Bravos going to the rescue of their comrades that went viral because it gave Americans back home something to cheer for.
As the day goes on we learn about Billy through a mix of memories, reflections and slightly stunned reactions to the often overwhelming here and now. Billy Lynn is literally the heart of the book. He’s nineteen going on twenty, unassuming, just coming to terms with life and what it holds for him, matured by the war in ways he’s only beginning to understand and puzzled and disturbed by the ferocity with which his fellow Americans talk about the war as they thank him for his service.
This is a beautiful book. The language is rich and diverse without being pompous or self-conscious. The themes of war, loss, fear and purpose are handled with a deft, light touch that nevertheless refuses to look away or to pretend.
Billy is real and likeable. He’s not a message or a symbol. He’s just a guy in a shitty place trying not to screw up and hoping not to get killed today. We share Billy’s memory of spending the day before Thanksgiving with his family. Being with them again after experiencing the war finally helps him understand how much he has to lose and how desperately he wants to prevent that loss. Despite this, Billy feels compelled to do what the Army requires of him and return to Iraq to complete the last eleven months of his tour.
The novel is structured so that we get to America and Americans in the context of some of their greatest institutions: Privileged Wealth, American Football, and Hollywood.
In the Dallas Cowboy’s VIP suite, Billy and his fellow Bravos are brought face to face with wealthy, powerful people they would never otherwise meet. As these millionaires repeat, with apparent sincerity and sometimes zeal, the same phrases “Honour…Sacrifice…Freedom…911…So proud…These Fine Young Men…911…Finest Fighting Force in the world…Real American Hero… 911…keeping us safe.” Billy experiences increasing dissonance. He would follow his sergeant through hell and would die to protect the men he serves with but he finds the behaviour of the civilians he is fighting the war for almost incomprehensible. In a chapter called “We Are All Americans Here” the reader has cause to wonder if this statement is really true and if it is, what it says about America.
American Football is used to give another way of looking at America that contrasts the joy and physicality of an informal knock-around game between the Bravos on the sacred turf and the bloated immensity of the professional game. The Bravos are shown the huge excesses of the equipment used, the pampering of the players, the crappiness of the stadium, the boredom of the game with its frequent stops for referee referrals and commercial breaks, We see the expensive fan paraphernalia that none of the bravos can afford and the elite rooms full of millionaires spending Thanksgiving schmoozing with other millionaires in clichéd VIP suits. We meet the oversized players fascinated by the firepower of automatic weapons. Finally, we meet that most American of inventions, the Cheerleaders as the Bravos take part in the absurd extravagance of the Halftime show with it not-quite-neutered sexuality and its decorative militarism.
Hollywood is pulled into the book because a producer is trying to sell a movie deal for the Bravos, based on their well-known battle in Iraq. Hollywood is used as an example of the disproportionate power of belief, the worshipping of the fake, the unwillingness to see the real because it looks too fake and the power of the millionaire asshole. Hollywood is presented as the self-serving distorting mirror America holds up to itself.
The momentum of the book is sustained by force of Billy’s personality. By his questions about what everything he’s seeing means. By his desperate desire to live long enough to get together with his hot, Christian cheerleader so that he won’t die a virgin. By his hunger to know more, to do more to be more. By his fantasy of having wife and children and leading a quiet life one day. By his unbreakable commitment to the men he serves with.
Hanging over everything that Billy hopes for is the knowledge that, in a few hours he’ll be back on base and in a couple of days, back in Iraq for the remaining eleven months of his tour.
Ben Fountain skillfully presents the world through Billy’s eyes and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. The message you take from this book may well depend on the opinions you had before you started reading it. It feels real and real life is never simple and never has a single clear didactic message.
I was moved by the way he brought the soldiers to life and made me care about them. They weren’t saints. They weren’t even unequivocally the good guys. Yet they were doing their job as well as they could and looking after each other like family As Fountain displayed, not unkindly but with unforgiving accuracy, the civilians the Bravos met, I felt the huge gap between the lives of the people at home and the people fighting on their behalf in Iraq.
This is Ben Fountain’s first novel. I hope it won’t be his last.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is well suited to being an audiobook. Oliver Wyman narrates the book with great skill. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of his work.
In a development that seems surreal given all that is said about Hollywood in this book, the novel has been made into a movie by Ang Lee that is due for release in November 2018.
You can see the movie poster and the trailer below. I think turning this book into a good movie while retaining the essence of the book is a challenge but if anyone can do it, Ang Lee can.