Billy Flynn's Long Half-time Walk, by Ben Fountain - a finalist on the 2012 National Book Award list was not at all what I thought it was going to be. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I was expecting yet another "shoot 'em up" war book. So this was a (dare I say?) delightful surprise. Billy Lynn is a member of Bravo company, a group of young soldiers currently on a "victory tour" around the United States to celebrate their now famous actions in a fire-fight in the war in the Middle East. Their unit just happened to have a FOX news reporter embedded and his footage and report of the battle made instant heroes of this band of brothers --so says the publisher's cover flap blurb.
A story of growing up, not a war story, but a novel of exquisite sensitivity about how heroism and patriotism can be very different entities when viewed through the lens of the hero and patriot as opposed to the eyes of the grateful nation's stay at home, football fanatic, rock star worshipping citizens of the good Ole U. S.of A.
We meet Billy and his buddies as their victory tour draws to a close, when they are slated to be part of the half-time show on Thanksgiving Day at the Dallas Cowboy football game. Billy, a Silver-Star recipient for his part in the battle, and a Texas native, has just finished a 2 day visit with his family and is struggling to reconcile his sense of forboding about returning to the war, along with his desire to take his sister's offer to help him run-away with a pacifist group who promise to hide him safely from legal action. He's had a chance to reflect on conversations with his best friend, who died in his arms. He's unimpressed with the Hollywood agent's offer to sell their story for $100K each - especially when the deal never seems to be quite finished. In short, he is fine tuning a healthy cynicism and skepticism about everything happening in his just beginning to form adult world.
At the stadium, the group is introduced to a plethora of Texas big-wigs, a gorgeous born-again cheerleader, and some rather clueless football players. Ben Fountain's incredible writing has kept this group from becoming cardboard stereotypes of both sides of the patriotism coin. Billy and his buddies soon realize they are propoganda pawns, and that no one is really interested in them as individuals, except their Sergeant who tries to keep them together physically and mentally. Billy and his cohorts react to this emotional and philosophical overload by drinking, fighting, and generally acting like the scared but brave heroes they really are.
This is a raw and unvarnished devastating look at an unpopular war. Fountain manages however, to separate the issues of those who fought the war from the issues of war itself. Many have compared this to Catch 22, and M.A.S.H. where the combatants and participants are looking at events through totally different lenses than the planners, plotters, and politicians. The novel is certainly destined to be regarded as a classic, and will be one I'll re-read more than once. It will absolutely be one of my top ten reads of this year, and should be on any list of top books of 2012 (the year it was published.)
Title: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Author: Ben Fountain
Publisher: ECCO, an imprint of Harper Collins (2012) 307 pages
Genre: War fiction
Subject: Psychological damage of war
Setting: Dallas Texas
Source: Review copy from publisher