Let's say you don't know anything about Ben Fountain. You don't know that he worked on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk for six years. You don't know that his first book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, a collection of short stories, won the PEN/Hemmingway Award. You don't know that he was Malcolm Gladwell's prime example in an essay about how it takes 10,000 hours to become great at anything. And you don't know that Billy Lynn has already established itself as the finest novel about the Iraq War. Well, then you'd be excused for feeling a little skeptical about this book.
An encounter with Ben Fountain in an elevator might go something like this:
Ben: "I've just published my first novel."
Puzzled Stranger: "Oh, wonderful."
B: "Yeah, it's a satire of America during the Iraq war and the Bush years."
PS: "Like The Daily Show?"
B: "But a novel, fiction. It's about a group of soldiers and it's set over a single Thanksgiving Day."
PS: "One Day? I've never read a novel set over a single day."
B: "Hardly anyone has. And it takes place at Texas Stadium during a football game."
PS: "So it's about the war, but it's set in Dallas? And it's a satire? Like it's supposed to be funny and clever?"
B: "Yeah, pretty much."
PS: "Well, good luck with that."
It seems like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk should fall apart in several different ways and descend to the ranks of gimmicky first novels. Books aren't set over the course of a single day because that's generally not enough time to establish characters and provide enough drama and emotional resonance. But Fountain pulls it off by combining blistering, beautiful language with razor-sharp insight.
A day at Texas Stadium is more than enough time for 19-year-old, Silver Star-winning Billy Lynn to see all that's wonderful and troubling about America. Set during George W. Bush's second term, the men of Bravo squad are turned into national heroes after Fox News broadcasts footage of the Bravos fighting off Iraqi insurgents.
Billy feels overwhelmed by the size and spectacle of everything happening around him:
The stadium is huge. It is deformed. It is a deformation of the human mind.
The soldiers are pushed and pulled through press conferences, photo ops, meet and greets with millionaires, billionaires and their wives who "are substantially but not offensively younger, all blondes, all displaying the taut architectonics of surgical self-improvement." There's an awkward encounter with the players, several of whom volunteer to go kill Iraqi's with the squad for free, and a tense halftime show where the Bravos find themselves torn between crying at the PTSD-triggering fireworks and checking out Beyonce's skimpy outfit.
At times the critiques become a little heavy-handed, and the reader might feel like surrendering to Fountain's near-constant stream of wonderfully written, spot-on metaphors about life in America. Towards the end of the book the single-day setting feels a little too dense and claustrophobic. Somehow, Billy Lynn's biggest flaw is that at times it can be a little too clever.
The Bravos will be redeployed to Iraq the day after Thanksgiving, and Billy finds himself torn between an unexpected romance, his sister's constant pestering encouraging him to walk away from the war and his knowledge that leaving the Bravos behind will haunt him for the rest of his life. Ben Fountain has written a funny novel that provides skewering critiques of America's obsession with sports, spectacle, and war, but ultimately this is a book about a very young man who has to decide why he fights and if he will continue to do so.
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