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Monday, June 11, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Trumpeted as “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War” on its cover, my expectations were high going into Ben Fountain’s new novel. While it may be unfair to expect any book to live up to such acclaim, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk certainly does not. Despite the writer’s command of his story and an endearing lead character, the gimmicky prose and omission of key scenes and details ultimately keeps the novel from justifying the effusive praise.

Billy Lynn is nineteen and a soldier. He and the surviving members of his squadron are in the United States on a whirlwind tour to celebrate their acts of heroism, which were helpfully recorded by an embedded Fox News team. The novel takes place near the end of this propaganda tour, when the soldiers, weary from the constant interviews and fawning interactions with the public, are forced through one more awkward and humiliating ordeal. They are to be part of the halftime event at the Thanksgiving Day football game at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. (The novel is set in 2006.)

The novel’s satire, such as it is, consists of making the rather obvious point, over and over again, that since such a small percent of the country is serving in the war, many of us in civilian life are either unsure how to deal with our military personnel or absurdly sure of the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing over there. Time and again, Fountain wrings everything he can out of the clichéd, tortured interactions between civilians and the members of Billy’s squad.

Fountain also uses the pomposity and grandeur of our new national pastime to cut through the absurdity of our modern American way of life. When Billy and the others are brought into the Cowboys’ locker room before kickoff, Fountain’s satire is at its sharpest. Looking at the super-sized human gladiators before him during the team owner’s insipid speech comparing the bravery of the soldiers to his team’s courage on the field, Billy wonders why America doesn’t send these freaks of nature out to fight the Iraqis.

Even here, though, Fountain’s targets are obvious, and his points belabored and well-worn. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels like a commentary for NPR that somehow got turned into a novel. Especially galling are Fountain’s lame attempts at dialect and slang, a tack that explodes in his face during his halftime song for Destiny’s Child, which is rendered unreadable by Fountain’s preening attempt to capture it in the vernacular.

There is surprisingly little at stake for a war novel. For indecipherable reasons, Fountain decides not to show the reader the raid that launched Billy into heroism, nor does he give the rest of the soldiers anything but the barest outline of the personality. The only reason the reader cares for these characters is because they are soldiers. Much of the plot concerns whether or not a studio will pay Billy and his friends for the movie rights to their story. A story line about Billy’s sister trying to convince him to desert is a complete non-starter. At the end, Fountain doesn’t seem to stake out any position for himself. It’s as though he’s a guy who’s just telling you that the world is crazy and then shrugging his shoulders, like “What are you going to do?”

Maybe it’s realistic, but it doesn’t make for compelling fiction.

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