Review: Ben Fountain Goes to War with 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk'

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Given its prevalence in the media, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Iraq War has already spawned some truly great literature. Just as Vietnam formed the cultural cornerstone of a generation, so Iraq has become an unavoidable topic for a new wave of writers. From the gritty, real-life absurdities of Jarhead to Graham Swift’s sly account of the war’s impact on home turf in Wish You Were Here, the Iraq War has dominated the work of some of literature’s greatest stars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Few Iraq War novels have received the critical acclaim enjoyed by Ben Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, however – and few have had so little to do with the war itself. While the book has earned comparisons with Catch-22, these seem to be based on Fountain’s eye for satirical absurdities rather than the narrative itself. If Catch-22 satirized the war, then Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk satirizes the culture that gave birth to it.

If that sounds glaringly unpatriotic, then it shouldn’t. Fountain’s debut celebrates America almost as much as it satirizes it, and in Billy Lynn it has a remarkably likable and admirable hero. His innocence and naive purity are almost beyond reproach as the novel progresses, and his desire to understand his life and his country make him one of literature’s least likely thinkers. In a world that’s amped up on half-naked cheerleaders and showtime glitz, Billy Lynn sounds like the voice of reason.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows the members of Bravo Squad – a unit decorated for its bravery under fire in Iraq – during the course of one of the most bizarre days of their lives, as they’re greeted as guests of honor at Texas Stadium during the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game. The game is the culmination of their ‘Victory Tour’, a marketing scheme initiated by the Bush administration that attempts to re-sell the war to Americans, parading its heroes across the country for all to see. Except Billy and his brothers-in-arms feel decidedly less than heroic, and their grand day out offers more farce than honor.

As for the rest of America, Fountain throws his barbs with deadly accuracy. Everyone from millionaire businessmen to Hilary Swank comes under his microscope, and few walk away with their credibility intact. At times the satire seems a little too scattered for its own good, taking shots at anyone and anything within reach – but when the shots are this funny, and this close to the mark, nobody’s really complaining.

The true star of Fountain’s show, however, is his gift with language, and as sharp as the satire is it can never quite match up to the witty one-liners and pitch-perfect similes that he throws around with seeming abandon. Whether it’s the crudely apt phrase “America’s throbbing cock of justice” or the “verbal arabesques that spark and snap in Billy’s ears like bugs impacting an electric bug zapper”, Fountain finds a way of making even the most mundane observation seem fresh and new. As literary stylists go, he’s second to none.

It’s to Fountain’s credit that he never stoops to satirizing the soldiers (at least, not for long) – their heroics appear ‘off camera’, but there’s no disputing their bravery in putting their lives on the line. Instead he snipes at the politicians, the media, and the public for putting them out there in the first place, and questions a culture that has become lethally gung-ho in its attitude to all things militaristic. It’s no wonder that Billy Lynn has hit a nerve. Say hello to the modern-day Yossarian.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is available now from all good bookstores, and via the HarperCollins website, priced $25.99.

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