Of the two most widely noted novels about the Iraq War published this year (both making the shortlist for the National Book Award), Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds” was the more celebrated. But Ben Fountain’s profane, shrewd, absurd, intelligent and hard-headed “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is surely the one that will last. If you’re mulling over audiobooks that will help you catch up on 2012′s best fiction, Oliver Wyman’s narration of this, Fountain’s first novel, is not to be missed.
The action mostly takes place stateside, with the title character and his fellow members of the so-called “Bravo squad” making a victory lap through several U.S. cities sometime in the mid-2000s. The soldiers have executed a heroic action in the vicinity of Fox News cameras, and they’ve been embraced as “real-life American heroes” by the nation. It’s Thanksgiving by the time their tour delivers them to a football game in Dallas, the throbbing epicenter of red-blooded, know-nothing, gimcrack patriotism, and 19-year-old Billy has already learned to zone out when people start shaking his hand and talking about “our freedoms.” Like the rest of the Bravos, he just wants to meet a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, or better yet, Destiny’s Child, who will also be performing on the field at halftime.
Wyman’s voice, a pleasingly resonant baritone, at first seems overly mature for a story told from the perspective of Billy, described by Fountain as “virginal.” Billy’s certainly in over his head in a milieu that features a preternaturally wise and self-possessed sergeant, a Hollywood agent permanently affixed to a BlackBerry and a slightly terrifying billionaire. The choice of Wyman, however, turns out to be a canny one, since the novel’s third-person narration emerges from a worldlier mind than young Billy’s. The skepticism that’s just beginning to dawn in him pervades the novel itself, as if an older Billy, someone who’d learned to regard the hoopla surrounding the Bravos as wholly opportunistic, were looking back on these events years later.
At the heart of Billy’s doubts lies the death of Shroom, a fellow private, in the celebrated battle. It was from Shroom, who loaned him books, that Billy received his first inkling that the world is full of things worth learning, and it is Shroom he can’t help thinking about as he staggers from a wrenching weekend with his family to a VIP party full of wealthy Cowboys supporters to an impromptu make-out session with a genuine (if lamentably evangelical) cheerleader. Fountain’s prose, rich with metaphors like the “fudgy give” of a plywood riser, is never ornate or overly aestheticized.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” although about a young man, is not a young man’s book. It’s ironic rather than earnest, and often very funny, but never fiery. (Reviewers’ comparisons to “Catch-22″ are not off-base.) Wyman shifts smoothly from the marveling of Billy, who’s setting foot in a world nearly as alien as Iraq, to assorted meretricious rich coots and their trophy wives, to Billy’s antiwar sister and his goofy, raunchy, trash-talking buddies. In one particularly delicious moment, Wyman beautifully mimics the authoritative cadences of a TV newsmagazine narrator when describing a story about the Bravos, a subtle reminder that the official and media versions of events are often radically disconnected from the experiences of the actual participants.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is less a war novel than an Iraq War novel; it’s about a specific historical, political and cultural moment (more fleeting than it seemed at the time), and its intersection with the eternal verities of war itself. Is it possible to behave nobly, as soldiers often do, in service of an enterprise whose premises are ignoble, as the Iraq War’s unquestionably were? That’s a lot for an undereducated 19-year-old to chew on, but Billy is up to the mission.
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