Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, but it took my old student Alex Barbolish recommending it to get it to the front of my queue. I’m glad he did since this is the best book I’ve read in weeks, and it strikes me as one of the best mirrors of our moment that I’ve seen.

It’s hard not to think of this book in conversation with other American war novels, particularly Catch-22. Both of these are satires, even farces, yet there’s something much gentler about Billy Lynn. If Joseph Heller was trying to channel his fresh anger and outrage at the idea of war, Ben Fountain is dealing with a refrain: we all know war is stupid and, in a post-Vietnam era with a war founded on what many of us have come to see as Bush’s “lies” about the real threat of Saddam, it’s old news that governments risk young men’s lives for obscure purposes.

If the news is old, though, the story is always new. Billy has heroically come to the near rescue of one of his friends in an experience that seems more authentic on television than through his memory or his testimony. It’s been since Hemingway (and maybe even Crane) that we recognize how difficult it is to tell your own war story, but Bill has to discover that truth all over again.

Instead of going down the earnest path of, most notably, Tim O’Brien, though, Fountain explores the problem through absurdity. Here are Billy and his friends, a day before going back to Iraq, being celebrated by the Dallas Cowboys and weighed for participation in a major motion picture.

If Catch-22 puts its satire in neon, this is done in water color. Fountain has a great capacity for letting the absurd sneak up on us. His caricature of the Cowboys owner reveals itself only slowly. (And it’s all the funnier if you know, as most of us do, the original in Jerry Jones.) He nails the voice, the self-importance, and the blindness to hypocrisy, and the result is a gradual juxtaposition of a very silly, frighteningly influential man alongside the decency of a common soldier.

The sub-plot of the cheerleaders works brilliantly, too. Against all odds, one beautiful girl is “really into” Billy, and he has to toggle between such extraordinary good fortune and the realization that his commitment to the army will almost certainly take it away from him. She is a dream girl, but he begins to realize she is necessarily just that: a dream who can’t exist in real life, the real life of what the novel calls at one wonderful point, “the best of the bottom third of their generation.” (I may have that quote off a little, but the spirit is there.)

If all those details and that mastery of tone weren’t enough, Fountain also finds a thoroughly satisfying metaphor for the heart of this book. If the idea of a ‘long walk at half-time’ doesn’t quite nail what’s going on, the title does evoke the underlying insight of the book. We’re at a cultural moment when we simply don’t have the apparatus to appreciate the experience of people like Billy, ordinary, even small people who find themselves in the middle of great events they neither understand nor endorse. We’re all caught in spectacle, and the images of our experience threaten to drown out that experience itself.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what makes this work so well. It’s a terrific book, and it will be good to see whether Fountain can deliver again next time.

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