Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

ISBN: 978 0 85786 452 9

Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk tells the story of Alpha Squadron, recently returned from Iraq to partake in a whirlwind two-week thanksgiving propaganda tour. Set around 2005 it focuses briefly on the battlefield, preferring instead to examine the effect of war on the domestic populace of the aggressor.

We experience the story through the eyes of the titles Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Alpha squadron member whose virginity is intact. Billy’s experience as a warrior is at odds with his lack of experience with the opposite sex. Apparently in Iraq there are none of the charitable young ladies, portrayed so frequently in movies about the Vietnam conflict, who “love you long time”.

Footage of a skirmish between Alpha squadron and some local insurgents has been captured by an embedded journalist and broadcast by the media. That the skirmish itself was of little strategic consequence or that a soldier died whilst one lost his legs is of no consequence to a narrative hungry media and public.

The American people, eager for stories of heroism and sacrifice to distract from the grubbier aspects of the invasion, clutch Alpha squadron closely to their bosom and in the process almost suffocate them. People from all backgrounds want something from Alpha squadron. As Billy Lynn puts it, “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year”.

The America which Alpha Squadron are subjected to is a grotesque carnival of self-celebration where spectacle serves to stave off boredom and its consequence; introspection. While the battered and bereaved members of Alpha squadron have been disabused of the romance of war through  experiencing it first hand, no such correctives are possible for the stay at home armchair warriors whose only experiences of war come through the media. As they travel from stage-managed event to stage-managed event in key election states Alpha squadron realise that people are interested in the symbols that they have become rather than the people they are.

Inconvenient aspects of their reality are steamrollered over to make their story fit into a neat simplistic package which eschews complexity in favour of easy to digest clichéd notions of military heroism. That Alpha squadron are actually a company is of little interest to the media who prefer the catchier sobriquet, details be damned. The returned heroes are flanked by various media figures at all times and a recurring joke involves the casting of the Alpha squadron movie with Hillary Swank tipped for the role of Billy Lynn. Much of the novel takes place in this vein moving from the tragic to the absurd without stopping to take a breath.

The culmination of the novel which takes place at the super bowl is a masterpiece in representing the politics and spectacle of post modernity in all its glory. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time at the insensitivity of placing shell-shocked soldiers, who must return to Iraq when the party is over, at the centre of a bombastic firework display. At the Super bowl the tribal intensity of American nationalism is laid bare in a parade of superabundance. Everything is excessive from the jumbotron screens to the freakishly large mass of the American football players. It is easy to see where the author’s politics lie and that is the novels greatest flaw. It’s not that I disagree with the authors political beliefs, In fact based on the evidence found in the novel the opposite is probably the case.

The problem is that Fountain often clumsily shoehorns dialogue into characters mouth which just doesn’t convince. This is especially the case with the protagonist Billy Lynn who at nineteen years old sounds like a fifty year old professor of ethics. His insights are too well-formed for a character of his age and inexperience. Perhaps most unconvincing is his reaction to a sex act he receives from a stripper. I think the author has forgotten what it is to be 19. This could have ruined the novel for me, and undoubtedly will for many, had I not found consolation in Fountain’s dark sense of humour and knack for portraying a clamouring hungry mob. If you turn a blind eye to the novels flaws which threaten its verisimilitude of the novel Billy Lynn’s long half time walk is an enjoyable read which realises the comic in the tragic and vice versa.

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