Back in November, I plugged a few books where football was a driving force. I am happy to report that I’ve been able to finish reading two of those books and have good things to follow up with. Here’s one:
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
Published May 2012
Claim to fame: 2012 National Book Award Finalist
This is a book that I can’t stop gushing about. I haven’t read a literary fiction book in years, put off by the genre’s ability to attract authors with the biggest egos. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels like Ben Fountain wrote this book for me, the reader, over himself as the writer.
Fountain tells the story of a 19-year-old soldier, Billy Lynn, who has been brought back from the Iraq War after a firefight makes him a hero back home in the States, and a double-hero in his home state of Texas. The year is 2004, 19 months into what we know now was an eight-year war. He and his Bravo Squad—minus one dead and one wounded—are on a “Victory Tour” that take the members around the country, culminating in the Thanksgiving Halftime show at the Cowboys-Bears game in Dallas. Beyonce and Destiny’s Child headline. (Side note: How giddy am I that Beyonce is a character in a literary fiction novel? Very giddy. Praise Beysus.)
The novel’s success lies in Fountain’s mostly neutral storytelling. The characters have their agendas, but Fountain’s stays mostly hidden. Billy Lynn’s persuasions lie more within his hormones than in any permanent political or ideological beliefs. He is the perfect vessel for us to experience the homecoming of a conflicted war hero, and the dread of his looming return to the Middle East. Lynn himself denies his heroism, saying he just did what he was trained to do. However, this 19-year-old is not your “aww, schucks” sort of Texan. He is angry, horny, and accepts Jack and Cokes and most every opportunity.
He is just a kid. Old enough to vote and die for America, but not old enough to legally buy alcohol or understand what the hell his place in this world is, other than as a grunt in the army. The Bravo squad knows they are just army grunts, at the bottom of the hierarchy. They do whatever their superiors tell them to do, whatever the movie executive trying to cut a deal tells them to do, and fake what the American public believes they are—unafraid to die. Billy is afraid to die, and desperate to not die a virgin.
I loved this book from beginning to end. Even the final paragraph was perfect. Cerebral, surreal, yet hilarious and grounded in believable characters and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me situations. After all, U.S. troops actually did march in the halftime parade at the 2004 Cowboys-Bears Thanksgiving Day game. Destiny’s Child performed their hearts out on that halftime stage. And American patriotism was at its most fervent, unquestioning, and die-hard since Vietnam.
Nearly 10 years later, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk provides a safe distance for us to look back, laugh, and regret our piece of the mess.