Fountains first novel Billy Lynns Halftime Walk sets the bar high
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK. By Ben Fountain. Ecco/HarperCollins. 320 pages. $26.
Ben Fountain’s debut novel accomplishes a rare feat: following up a universally acclaimed short-story collection with an equally impressive first novel.
While “Brief Encounters With Che Guevara,” the author’s PEN/Hemingway Award–winning 2006 collection, introduced a new talent to watch, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” will bring Fountain a much-deserved wider audience.
Fountain delivers more than just a satire of the absurdities of war. With a kinetic blend of humor and poignancy, he skewers a range of distinctly American traditions, including capitalism, professional football and Hollywood.
Taking place during the course of one Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys football game, the story follows Bravo Squad on its “Victory Tour,” a journey across the country in celebration of the soldiers’ heroism during the war.
As they take in the sights and sounds of the game, they listen in as a Hollywood producer, riding along with Bravo on the Victory Tour, works to secure them a movie deal.
The center of the narrative is 19-year-old Texan Billy Lynn, a small-town virgin whose heroics earned him a Silver Star. Though he considers himself just a grunt carrying out his mission, his introspection, compassion and thoughtfulness mark him as more than an average soldier.
Throughout the day, Lynn wrestles with his conflicting emotions about the war. He’s not ambivalent about serving his country, but he’s bothered by the ignorant views of those gung-ho, hyper-patriotic Americans who haven’t seen a single minute of battle.
He alternately appreciates and resents their enthusiasm, though he’s mostly bothered by the simplistic get-’er-done patriots who want to “show (the Iraqis) the wrath of God and pound them into compliance, and if that doesn’t work then bring out the nukes and take it all the way down, wipe it clean, reload with fresh hearts and minds, a nuclear slum clearance of the country’s soul.”
Certain conservative readers may take offense with some of Lynn’s more politically charged thoughts, but regardless of political persuasion, most readers will be captivated by Fountain’s dynamic, potent prose and consistently engrossing story.
Packed with irreverence, sharp social and political commentary and genuine wit, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” should be considered for many of the year’s top literary awards.
Reviewer Eric Liebetrau, managing and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Mount Pleasant