RSS

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

“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

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Breakfast With Buddha, by Roland Merullo

Breakfast With Buddha, by Roland Merullo

Buddhism is hard to explain. Sometimes I think it is best explained by talking about something else, as the Zen masters are fond of doing. Roland Merullo succeeds in that approach in Breakfast with Buddha.

Otto Ringling is proud of himself. He is content with his nice job as a senior editor at a publishing house, with his nice kids, nice wife, and nice life. Except he’s not content, really, and he doesn’t know why. After the sudden death of his aging parents he begins wondering about “…the purpose, the plan, the deeper meaning.” Enter his ‘flakey’ sister, who sneakily arranges for him to drive her friend, Volya Rinpoche (a Buddhist holy man), from New Jersey to North Dakota to turn over her portion of their newly inherited farm to him for use as a spiritual retreat. As he and the Rinpoche travel together, Otto’s cherished image of himself starts to wear thin in spots, and, despite his best efforts, the Rinpoche’s kind (but brief) words, strange eating habits, odd silences, and unfailing patience begin to break down Otto’s firm hold on his own version of religious skepticism.

Two men, radically different, trapped in a car for a week on road trip across America is a funny premise, and it gets funnier, in the hands of Merullo. As Otto smugly enlightens the Rinpoche to the finer points of American cuisine, bowling, and miniature golf, the Rinpoche in return convinces Otto (reluctantly) to try yoga, meditation, and fasting. The funniest moments come from the genuine delivery of these well scripted imagined cultural exchanges. Anyone who has ever appreciated a good yoga class will appreciate the fury with which Otto Ringling makes it through his first one, sweating and swearing his way along. “It was hard, wasn’t it?” the instructor asks afterward. “Hard? It was like being inside of a washing machine,” Otto answers. But he allows himself to also experience a few moments of peace, and we know there is hope for him. Murello is not afraid to go deep, as well, as in this impromptu lesson from the Rinpoche when Otto asks him about the nature of good and evil: “This is the world and always this world…Inside the big world that you cannot control, you have the small world of you that you can control.” There’s no attempt to turn anyone into a Buddhist here, just exposure to some simple Buddhist ideas in bite-sized pieces, as seen through the eyes of a newly perceptive Everyman.

Breakfast with Buddha is light hearted and sweet, free of heavy handed religious dogma. Merullo is in turn hilarious and tender as he writes his way across an American landscape that brings out the worst and, in the end, the best, of Otto Ringling. It’s not just Otto that comes to some sort of revelation about himself somewhere in the Heartland of America, it’s the reader, too. If Otto were a little more likable at his worst, this book would be nearly perfect, but I still highly recommend it to anyone who leans slightly to the left and still has a “window left open” in the back corners of their mind as far as their own spirituality goes. Oh, and to anyone who wants to laugh so hard they embarrass themselves in airport waiting areas. It really is that funny.

Breakfast With Buddha
Author: Roland Merullo
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,2008

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Wild is not my memoir. I have never tried cocaine. I have never been divorced. My mother has not died of cancer. I was, however, (much like Cheryl Strayed) raised in a small community in rural northern Minnesota and born somewhere in the middle of the year 1968 and have always aspired to be a writer. In addition, during the summer of 1995, it is true that I moved from Minnesota to California and hiked portions of the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). And, while I admit that all of these coincidental similarities were enough for me to enjoy Wild maybe a bit more than the average reader, they in no way explain my absolute commitment to this book. That kind of commitment, the kind that I feel toward Wild, can only be earned, not happened upon. And Strayed earns it in spades. She earns it with her fearlessness. Her honesty. Her flawless pacing, smartly chosen details, and self aware (but not self-deprecating or self aggrandizing) delivery of the story. This is a story for all adults, those who have come of age through some sort of ritual, and those who only wish they had.

In a society where we don’t have a ritual to help young people learn what it is to be an adult, Strayed creates her own. In the summer of 1995, at 26 years old, reeling from the death of her mother, the slow dissolving of her family, and the failure of her marriage, Strayed commits herself 1,100 mile trek on the high-altitude Pacific Crest Trail, solo, repeating her mantra the whole way: I am not afraid. Along with her 60+ pound pack, she carries with her a broken heart and devastating mistakes, heavy burdens to be sure. And while this book talks about those burdens, it is never about them more than it is the trip itself. Unlike Eat Pray Love (which I loved, and which Wild resembles in the sense that is about a woman’s search for meaning) Strayed’s voice is not neurotic, frantic, or laced with self pity. Strayed’s is the voice of someone who has walked slowly over the bed of hot coals (barefoot) and stands at the other side, transformed. Contrary to Eat Pray Love, (thankfully) there is no happy ending here, as there shouldn’t be. No one is ever relieved of the burden of suffering by any other person or by achieving a goal, Strayed seems to say, we just grow strong enough to bear it, and come to find comfort in the weight of our own burdens.

As a fan of The Rumpus’s ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column, also written by Strayed, I find Wild to have a similar mix of gut wrenching honesty and hope. The kind of hope that Strayed offers her readers is the kind that we need as people and (to go out on a big limb here) as a society. She offers us hope that, if we face our fears, instead of run from them, if we own our mistakes, instead of blaming others for them, and if we are brave enough to do what our hearts are telling us to do, rather than what might offer us the most money or security, then we’ll be better for it. We’ll survive. We’ll become stronger and happier and, eventually, may even thrive. That’s a message that everyone, particularly every woman, needs to hear today.

More than once since I’ve finished the book and run right up against the wall of my own insecurities, I’ve taken a cue from Wild and repeated my new adopted mantra: I am not afraid. And then I’ve kept going, because that’s all we can do.

Thanks for the advice, Cheryl.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Memoir, Nonfiction

 

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

Good writers know that the stories that stay with us the longest are those that deal with the most difficult things for us to look at, exposing them to the light of day in ways that we can recognize and relate to. Matt Haig writes from this place in The Radleys, a fast moving story about a family who has denied its destiny for too long, and the consequences of that denial. The Radleys are in deeper denial than most families, with more at stake: they are a family of vampires. Before you write this off as another hormone-drenched, sweaty palmed romance about handsome, blood-sucking teenage vampires, you should know that this book is for adults, and not because of violence, sex, or language (although Haig uses all three to good effect when needed). No, The Radleys is the story of a family in a midlife crisis, a story most of us can identify with.

“How can I be expected to live my whole life not being me?” Peter Radley asks his wife as he tries to convince her that denying who they truly are is not necessarily the best way to live their lives. This is the real question that this book explores: What happens if we deny who we really are, day after day and year after year? “I don’t know,” Helen Radley says truthfully. “I really don’t.” Once the teenage Radley children discover their true identity, there is no going back for the family, and the Radley’s entire middleclass neighborhood is forced to come along for the ride.

Haig is a master at structure: the book blazes through a four day time span in 100 short chapters (the longest is 8 pages, the shortest is a few paragraphs) that propel the story along, barely slowing down for sharp corners, making for a thrilling ride. The point of view rotates with each chapter, and while it can sometimes make your head spin, it lends a sense of dizzy urgency to the book that keeps you biting your nails to the very end. The point of view shifts allow us to identify with his theme of repression in many ways: as young adults, as a middle aged parent in a ‘bloodless’ marriage; as a washed up police detective. We can even recognize ourselves in the devilish but likable Will Radley (think Jack Kerouac as a vampire).

Haig, in The Radleys, shows us why writing about vampires might actually be socially relevant. The Radleys is a well told cautionary tale of the strength of repressed desire, the power of our own destiny, and the ultimate triumph of truth.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , ,