Monday, August 20, 2012
Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm not sure how to review this book without gushing and thus losing the chance to convince people to read this novel. So, know my goal is to encourage people to read this book; I will not summarize plot. I will try to contextualize why I think this book is worth your time.
Perhaps it's just one of those "perfect timing" novels where I found exactly the kind of book I wanted at the right time. Fountain's novel swept me along and I never wanted it to end. The climax is fascinating and surprising and nearly perfect. If you have any interest in novels about 21st century American culture -- teh culture of money and competition and violence and spin, then this book will satisfy you. It is a book about soldiers and war, but not in a warzone. It's a book about friendship and family and the things that give people a reason to keep going.
To keep it simple: BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK truly does feel like a CATCH-22 for the Iraq War (as one of the blurb proclaims). Now, that's a heavy burden for a book, since CATCH-22 is a classic of war satire (in fact, is it one of the only war satires? LYSISTRATA comes to mind, but I blank on others at the moment).
Let me also say that I am a rabid Tim O'Brien fan. Any fiction I read about war is always read through the filter of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Ben Fountain's novel manages to coexist with O'Brien's philosophy on stories about war. Mainly because this is a novel about how America views itself during wartime. Billy Lynn, rather than being an O'Brien-esque story-spinner trying to make sense of his experience is, instead, a semi-sober critic of American culture. He spends the bulk of the novel trying to reconcile what he's fighting for with what he sees during the course of a 2 week 'victory tour' with the rest of his unit. Yes he struggles with the purpose of the war, but he also quickly realizes what O'Brien's short story collection contends: a soldier cannot explain the war experience to civilians. (Hemingway's IN OUR TIME argues this as well).
So, while he does spend some time pondering his life, his future, and his family in a particularly effective chapter, Billy Lynn can spend more time wondering how the Americans flooding Texas Stadium for the Thanksgiving Day game can be so happy and dumb. As Lynn points out: "Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached." It's one of his many great DeLillo-esque observations that might seem "out of character" for a 19 year old from a small town in Texas, except that Shroom -- one of the casualties of the battle in Iraq that made Billy & his unit famous -- certainly pointed him towards deeper thinking.
A fantastic book. One I'll make time to read again.
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