Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, By Ben Fountain
The American way of love and war
Sunday 15 July 2012
Billy Lynn is 19, from a hick town in Texas and a member of Bravo company on leave from the war in Iraq. Bravo company are heroes of a frenzied firefight against insurgents and, wouldn't you know it, Fox News captured the whole bloody mess. It's now a YouTube sensation. So this isn't R&R: the boys are on a nationwide "victory tour", a shameless piece of boosterism after the non-appearance of WMDs.
Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk takes place on the day of Bravo's final meet-and-greet, at a football match in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium, before they're shipped back to the front line. They joke, they cuss, they brawl, they dream of hooking up with a cheerleader or, even better, the half-time entertainment, Destiny's Child. But before that unrealisable fantasy, they must be paraded one last time before the crowds who love them, who need them, who ask them what it was really like. Anything but acknowledge that they are killing machines.
Amid this outpouring of infantile emotion, Ben Fountain's brilliantly drawn Billy emerges as the lone sane voice: "Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity." He knows his life is worthless, and war is hell, but he "sees no great appeal in these tepid peacetime lives".
But Billy is not a vehicle for an exposition on the idiocy of US culture, but a real young man. He doubts, he rails, he lusts. (The scenes at home in which he's trying not to get turned on by his sister in a bikini are a gorgeous vignette of dysfunctional domestic life.) He wants real love and the telescoped romance with a cheerleader, Faison, is convincing and heartbreaking.
The book is lit up by verbal pyrotechnics, although there are times when you feel machine-gunned by half-formed metaphors, sandbagged by similes. And while Fountain's observations are generally sharp, a pronouncement such as "Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached" is sophomoric and trite.
That aside, this is an exhilarating ride; funny, oddly touching, written with garish clarity. If Billy has a conclusion, it's that there are no answers. "Silence [is] truer to the experience than star-spangled spasm, the bittersweet sob, the redeeming hug, or whatever this fucking closure is that everybody's always talking about. They want it to be easy and it's just not going to be."
Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk is not the "Catch 22 of the Iraq War" as the book's jacket screams: there's no paradox – the characters are under no illusions about the sanity of the undertaking. It's about the American way of watching war, brought to you by General Motors. And in Billy we've found a hero for our times.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 2 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
- 5 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts