The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Fiction: Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Fiction: Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

A kind of coagulatory effect attends Bravo's route as people stop, shout out, gape, or grin according to their politics and personality type, and Bravo blows through it all, polite and relentless, an implacable flying wedge of forward motion until the crew of a Spanish-language radio station grabs Mango for an interview, and all that good clean energy goes to hell.  People gather.  The air turns moist with desire.  They want words.  They want contact.  They want pictures and autographs.  Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want.  With his back to the railing Billy finds himself engaged by a prosperous-looking couple from Abilene who have their grown son and daughter-in-law in tow.  The young people seem embarrassed by their elders' enthusiasm, not that the old folks give a damn.  "I couldn't stop watching!" the woman exclaims to Billy.  "It was just like nina leven, I couldn't stop watching those planes crash into the towers.  I just couldn't, Bob had to drag me away."  Husband Bob, a tall, stooped gent with mild blue eyes, nods with the calm of a man who's learned how much slack to give a live-wire wife.  "Same with yall, when Fox News started showing that video I just sat right down and didn't move for hours.  I was just so proud, just so" – she flounders in the swamps of self-expression – "proud," she repeats, "it was like, thank God, justice is finally being done."

"It was like a movie," chimes her daughter-in-law, getting into the spirit. (p. 44)

After eleven years, thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqi and Afghan deaths, the twin conflicts of the Iraq and Afghan Wars are finally winding down.  It has been the longest sustained conflict (the escalation phase of Vietnam lasted only from 1964-1973) in American military history, with a cost, both in terms of economic and psychological impact, much greater than the relative paucity of lives lost in the conflicts.  During these past eleven years, old symbols from older conflicts, like the ubiquitous yellow ribbons and American flags, have been revived and given almost sacrosanct status.  If one does not "support the troops," then one must be disloyal to them,  according to some of the current rhetoric (perhaps guilt from the perceived treatment of soldiers returning home from Vietnam?).

Yet at what cost do we "support the troops?"  Is it possible that in trying so hard to be supportive, that the well-meaning just don't get it?  This premise lies at the heart of Ben Fountain's debut novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.   One of two National Book Award finalists that deal with the Iraq conflict and its aftermath (the other, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, is written by a former soldier who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom), Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a snapshot look at the experience that a fictional Bravo squad has in the aftermath of their heroic defense in the face of an Iraqi ambush as they pushed toward Baghdad, as they are sent on a two week "victory tour" that culminates in a halftime recognition at a Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium in late 2003.  Over the course of its 307 pages, Fountain does an outstanding job of portraying and then exploding a wide range of civilian reactions to a conflict and the soldiers that they just do not understand.

In reading Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I was reminded favorably of a telling scene late in Erich Remarque's classic 1929 novel on World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front.  In Remarque's novel, the frontline soldier Paul Bäuer is rotated "home" to recuperate from an injury and during that time, he receives vacuous well-wishes and endures jingoistic statements from the "old lions" that show that they have no idea what the conflict was doing to him and his comrades.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which (minus the flashbacks) transpires over the course of a single afternoon and evening, encapsulates much of Remarque's attitude toward "the home front," yet with a very different approach.

The novel utilizes Billy Lynn's stream of consciousness-like PoV as a counterpoint to the numerous people he meets during the preparations for an elaborate halftime "celebration" that ends up being more of a sop to those in attendance than anything that the Bravo squad soldiers themselves care to experience.  There are occasional "cut-ins" to Billy's thoughts, such as this one that occurs after he finishes his interaction with the rich family quoted at the beginning of this review:

wore on terrRr

          double y'im dees

                              proud, so proud



        pray and

                 hope and

                            bless and


                                                                    from whom all things



(p. 45) 

These looks into Billy's fractured thoughts/reactions to the steady drizzle of vacuous platitudes that he endures is used judiciously; there is rarely ever the sense that Fountain overextends these sardonic commentaries on the well-meaning yet meaningless comments of the civilians to Billy and other members of his squad.  These interactions (and Billy's stream of consciousness internal monologue reaction to them) serve as a counter to Billy's reflections on his life, his comrades, living and fallen alike, and what he has learned about humanity during his two years in the army after he was almost forced to join the Army at 17 after a singular incident of vandalism and assault that occurred in a Texas town not too far away physically from Texas Stadium but worlds away psychologically from where he was demonized before this current lionizing.

Often first-person and limited third-person PoV narratives that focus on the experiences and reactions of a single character risk reducing the supporting characters to caricatures of human beings.  Fountain manages to avoid this, as the vignettes with the well-wishers, the cheerleader who wants to sleep with Billy, the overexcited prop members, the crew that jumps Billy in reaction to "ruining" his big moment on-stage, etc. are almost all pitch-perfect in presentation.  It is easy for us to picture those around us acting in exactly the same ways that the other characters in the novel do. 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk captures the subconscious hypocrisies of American attitudes toward war (it is like a movie!) and its soldiers (heroes, yet there is no recognition of their frail humanity and their need for something more than pats on the back and chest thumps of pride).  It is a very accomplished debut novel and is a serious contender for this year's National Book Award in Fiction.  Highly recommended.

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