Thursday, February 14, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: War Is Hell, and Hell Is Other People

"The war makes him wish for a little more than the loose jaw and dull stare of the well-fed ruminant."
That, in a nutshell, is the main theme of Ben Fountain's fantastic Iraq War novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The novel is about a company of soldiers, who have distinguished themselves as heroes in a firefight in Iraq, and are therefore trotted out for a two-week "victory tour" in the U.S., culminating in a Cowboys game on  Thanksgiving Day.

It's certainly no accident that Fountain has the soldiers wind up at a football game — it's the perfect contrast for the point he's trying to make about Americans' view of the war in general, and the soldiers who are fighting it, specifically. Because we can't comprehend the horror of war, we often try to liken it to sports (or, more melodramatically, we use silly analogies to try to elevate sports to the level of war). But to try to claim we have even the remotest idea what war is like is disingenuous to the nth degree.

Or, as Billy Lynn, the 19-year-old hero of the battle for which Bravo company is now famous, tells us after a particularly annoying run-in with a "fan":  
"Don't talk about shit you don't know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths."
How powerful is that?!

But there's plenty of fun to be had with this novel, too. It takes place over the course of one day, as the company arrives at Texas Stadium (it's 2004) and meets the cheerleaders and the Cowboys' owner (a particularly odious caricature of Jerry Jones) and his deputies and friends (including a particularly odious caricature of T. Boone Pickens). The fellas spend their day sneaking beers and booze, cracking jokes about which of them will hook up with Destiny's Child, the game's halftime show, and constantly accepting the adulation of adoring "fans," who keep thanking them for the service and explaining how much they support the troops.

All along, a big-shot Hollywood producer is trying to get them a movie deal, and promises them $100,000 a man for their story. So that's the good news. The bad news that haunts them over the course of the day is that they have to redeploy that evening to finish the remaining 11 months of their tour. And Billy has to decide whether to take his sister Kathryn's pleading advice and let a group of lawyers in Austin help get him out of the tour, or whether to be loyal to his company and return. (He's also just met and thinks he loves a cheerleader named Faison, with whom he has formed an impromptu — and what he thinks is real — connection.)

I loved this book, as much for the fact that it's just downright entertaining, as for the fact that it really made me think and question some things that are maybe too easy to take for granted. Without actually doing something about it, saying "I support the troops" is an empty sentiment and perhaps just as disingenuous as pretending we know what it's like to be at war.

But so, if you're looking for a war novel sans any type of blood and guts and battle scenes, this is your book. Very highly recommended. 


  1. Okay, this has been on my TBR for quite a while. Definitely going to pick it up now. I knew you loved it, but this is a great summary. Great review.

  2. Fantastic review. This has been on my radar for a while now. I need to pick up a copy!

    1. Thanks! It's a really quick, fun read - that really makes you think a bit. (And definitely appeals to the left-leaning readers out there. :) )

  3. I'm going to buy this book right now. Thanks for the review.

  4. First quote, first sentence of your review sold me on this one. The rest of the review convinced me that this one should be read sooner rather than eventually.

  5. oh wow how different this Iraq war book sounds compared to the other NBA finalist The Yellow Birds. Like night and day. I just reviewed The Yellow Birds over at and I think I might like to pick up Billy Lynn a bit more

  6. Ben Fountain is one of our brilliant new writers. What a pleasure to read his work and I've already given this book to several of my friends, including a new friend who was in the Navy Seals for 13 years. I really want to know what he thinks. Reader, you won't be disappointed in this great new work, a finalist for the National Book Award. Wow...

  7. Awesome and realistic exploration of war heroes and veterans by politicians and wealthy aristocrats. They will not serve but will sacrifice you and I in a heartbeat.