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TBTS Reviews: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

May 22, 2012

The Iraq War has its first great novel. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the debut novel by highly talented Texan Ben Fountain, spans one day in the lives of the eight men of Bravo Squad, survivors of the firefight at the Al-Ansakar Canal, caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew and beamed to eager audiences at home, now war heroes at the end of a Pentagon-arranged “Victory Tour” at the height of the war, slated to be honored at the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day just a day before heading back to Iraq. In one day, nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, Silver Star-decorated hero of the battle, encounters a dazzling variety of characters – adoring armchair patriots, the billionaire owner of the Cowboys, a Hollywood producer, a lusty born-again cheerleader, the Cowboys players, Destiny’s Child – and faces a terrible decision whose consequences will stay with him for the rest of his life no matter what he chooses. In just over three hundred pages, Ben Fountain illuminates the world of soldiers and the American way of war on both the home front and the battlefield with an inspired performance worthy of a major award.

Fountain’s literary career has been relatively short but remarkable. He has only one other book, the excellent story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, but he has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry prize, and a number of other awards. Once an attorney in Dallas, Fountain turned to fiction in pursuit of a dream. It’s fair to say he caught it. His hard work in pursuit of his craft comes through on every page. He’s an arresting stylist – throughout both Billy Lynn and Brief Encounters I found myself stopping to underline his deft phrasing and unexpectedly apt images. He can deliver short, powerful chops and he can go on long, dizzying runs with equal virtuosity. At first, maybe fifty, seventy-five pages into Billy Lynn – I hadn’t yet read Brief Encounters, or I’d probably have figured this out earlier – I thought Fountain promising, but by the time I finished I realized to call him that would be a clumsy understatement. Everywhere I turn in this book, I see the marks of a writer who has wasted no chance to perfect his craft and to hone his powers of observation to a finer edge than most writers could even approach. This isn’t potential, it’s mastery. To read Billy Lynn is to witness promise fulfilled.

Surprisingly, Fountain is not himself a veteran, but his portrayal of the Bravos is pitch-perfect, rich, deep, and often hilariously profane. For such a funny book – and you can’t miss the sharpness of Fountain’s sense of humor – its humor is applied with a surgeon’s care, cutting exactly where it needs to and nowhere else. This is not some gonzo send-up, nor is it even strictly a satire. This is, instead, a careful examination of how we live, how we fight, and who we are today. Billy Lynn revels in uncovering absurdities wherever it finds them, but it also sobers you, provokes you, makes you think deeper about who we have become and why. By the time you reach the jaw-dropping halftime show itself, one of the best payoffs I’ve seen in ages, you will be in stitches and you might also need them. Karl Marlantes calls it “the Catch-22 of the Iraq War”, and he’s neither wrong nor hyperbolic. I’ll reach back a bit further and say this: Mark Twain would have loved this book.

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