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August 12, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn is 19 years old. He’s under-educated, virginal, with a dad who won’t speak to him and a criminal record for smashing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car. Tomorrow he’s going back to war. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is the story of one afternoon in the lives of Bravo Squad, who have been home from Iraq for two weeks on a PR stint after footage of their daring rescue in the desert went viral. This is one afternoon through the eyes of Billy Lynn. The story flickers briefly back to Billy’s two days at home to colour in the pictures of his family, but most of the action is at Texas Stadium as the squad mixes with millionaires, cheerleaders and everyday Americans at a Dallas Cowboys home game.

Ben Fountain uses this stadium—the archetype of American culture—as an arena for asking some of the bigger questions about their love of war (“having served on their behalf as a frontline soldier, Billy finds himself constantly wondering about them. What are they thinking? What do they want? Do they know they’re alive? As if prolonged and intimate exposure to death is what’s required to fully inhabit one’s present life”), and some of the smaller ones about growing up. Through Billy’s honest, truthful and worried eyes, Fountain presents to the reader the realities of fighting, death and being a terrified man. While it never gets preachy or forces an opinion, the novel produces these ideas and their consequences, perfectly balanced with the banter and jokes of the other Bravo Squad members (“Will Beyoncé show me her tits while sitting on my face” Sykes offers.”) to prevent it getting too heavy or exhausting.

This book is a page-turner, but it is difficult to say why. Maybe it is the beautiful writing about such literally and figuratively tough actions, or what a strangely likeable character Billy is, despite his experiences seeming worlds away from ours. The personalities of the characters are expertly revealed in small details which build up to create a comprehensive and character-driven narrative. The plot arc manages to be a vehicle for something that is philosophical, funny, realistic and constantly surprising. We see Billy wishing for more from this country for which he and his boys have risked, and lost, so much. The novel changed the way I looked at war—not just Iraq—and it brilliantly shows how anyone can be a hero for our times, whether they intended to be or not.  It is a youthfully optimistic but, thankfully, never naïve novel, propelled by its honesty and originality.

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