There’s two things I love about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The concept of the novel is brilliant, and the writing is sublime. Ben Fountain won the National Book Award for this debut novel, and the award is well deserved.
Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier who, along with his Bravo Unit, achieved fifteen minutes of fame for a brief and deadly firefight with Iraqis. A Fox News crew happened to be embedded with the unit and video of their attack has made these young soldiers heroes. Now, on a two-week “Victory Tour,” Billy and his brothers find themselves being celebrated for their courage during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys Game, where they will appear as props during a half-time appearance by Beyonce. Throughout the day, a hot shot Hollywood producer who has signed an option for their story holds cell phone negotiations in an attempt to secure financing to put their epic battle on the big screen. This is one epic day as the Bravo unit drinks, fights, gets stoned, hobnobs with the 1% in luxury suites, fights with roadies, and flirts with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Here’s the catch – at the end of this three-ring circus – they are due to fly back to Iraq for another eleven-month tour.
Author Ben Fountain moves mountains with this novel. His prose is wickedly funny and brightly colored, while we also feel the pain of Billy and his peers as they watch the masses of civilians walking through the concourse. At one point, a Dallas Cowboys lineman asks if he could join them in battle, “just for a week.” When a soldier suggests that the football player could enlist, the NFL players in the locker laugh.
To complicate matters, though Billy has held a dying friend in his arms, he is still a naive kid in many ways. He’s a virgin. His sister keeps sending him texts, trying to convince him to consider going AWOL. He’s lost while talking business with the rich men, and realizes they are patronizing him. When Billy makes a surprising connection with a cheerleader, he starts dreaming about a romantic life – heaven – while knowing he is hours away from returning to hell. In essence, he is just a teenager trying to figure out his world.
At one point, the producer tells him, “Billy you’re a philosopher.” But the kid tries to deny it, replying, “Hell no, I’m just a grunt.” Heartbreaking.
There’s so much more packed into these 307 pages, but I don’t want to ruin your reading experience. All I can say is, take the walk with Billy Lynn and you’ll see America in a new light.