“This guy is a goddamned wordsmith!”
That was my 75 year old father’s one-line book review after I gave him a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for Father’s Day this year. He said it defiantly, as if he wanted me to argue with him, but I couldn’t, because he’s right. Ben Fountain is a wordsmith. His is the kind of smithing that is as perfect and refreshing as water, so perfect you hardly notice it. Even more interesting, he forges a beautiful novel out of some pretty scrappy materials: swearing, slang, and just plain confusing grammar; all of it culled right from the mouths of today’s soldiers and citizens, all of it working together to create this sharp edged sketch of a three hour slice of American Pie.
In case you are not interested in reading novels about war, no worries: this book is not about that. Not really. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is about Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad’s brief victory lap around the U.S. after an (allegedly) heroic and much televised incident in Iraq. The novel covers just a few hours of their tour, the few hours during which Bravo Company is paraded out during a Dallas Cowboys game to participate in the halftime show as ‘America’s Heroes’.
During the incident in Iraq for which the group is now famous, Billy Lynn has a close encounter with death, a spiritual experience that he can’t explain. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Billy searches the buffet of humanity around him for a glimmer of depth and understanding, for some sort of spiritual or emotional guidance. The narrator asserts that Billy is looking for “…knowledge and guidance having to do with death, grief, the fate of the soul, if nothing else he seeks the means for verbalizing such matters without shitting all over their very real power.” Through flashbacks and dialogue and machinegun-fire bursts of literary genius, Ben Fountain takes Billy through encounters with priests, fellow comrades, Swift boat millionaires, pro football players, cheerleaders, reporters, and Hollywood producers. With each encounter we can feel Billy growing more self aware, right there, on the page. I’m sure that more than one reader, (this one included) are led to some form of self-awareness as well, like it or not.
Ben Fountain is not trying to create an epic novel about war, or about heroes. This is not a book full of pride or a thrilling tale of bravery. This is book is about America. A book that lays out all of the flagrant, dumb greediness of the circumstantially rich and sets it down with a sickening plop right next to the scared, true, vulnerable heart of the nineteen year old boy-next-door. The very same one who stood in line in front of you at the video store last week or maybe bagged your groceries yesterday. Fountain creates a room in your imagination where, if only for a few hours, these two worlds intersect, and he illuminates the oily gap in between them. While Fountain doesn’t preach about right or wrong, he doesn’t shy away from it, either. All of the hot, steaming entrails of American life are exposed to the reader in this sharp, shining, and very, very real novel. We glimpse, as Billy eventually does, that existence doesn’t necessarily have to be “…a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn thing to another.” Fountain helps us put our lives and Billy’s life (not to mention the Iraq war) in a new context of awareness. This is why we write and read fiction: to illuminate the truth. Go out and read this book – then you’ll be illuminated, too.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Author: Ben Fountain
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2012