Thursday, January 03, 2013

A Fine First Novel - A "Catch-22" for the War on Terror: Review of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

I wondered what all the buzz was about concerning "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," and then I picked up the book and understood. Ben Fountain's first novel has many of the elements to make it reasonable to call it the "Catch-22" of the War on Terror.

Simply put, Billy Lynn returns home to Texas as part of a PR tour to highlight a band of warriors who acquitted themselves well in a fire fight in Iraq that happened to be captured by an embedded Fox-innocent TV crew. The author's premise is that America needs heroes, and we will do whatever it takes to manufacture them. The book manages to parody many aspects of contemporary American society, using Texas Stadium and a Dallas Cowboys football game as the screen upon which to project his satirical images. Among the characters he creates are the hard-drinking men of "Bravo Squad." Even the name of the group is a misnomer, for they were not technically a "squad," yet that is what they become known in the popular parlance during their "Victory Tour" through a number of Red States. Fountain's writing throws off cynicism on every page.

Each character is in some way a skewed caricature of the American dream. We meet and learn to laugh at and sometimes empathize with a fascinating cast of characters. There is the greedy and powerful owner of the Cowboys, a film-maker who wants to capitalize on the fame of "Bravo Squad" and their Purple Heart and Silver Star-winning exploits at Al-Ansakar Canal and he is willing to sell them out to the highest bidder. There is Shroom, the tough and philosophical sergeant who babysits his wayward troops and keeps them looking like heroes during the publicity tour. There is Billy, the young Texan who is the hero of Al-Ansakar and whose family back home in Texas is spectacularly dysfunctional. There is Billy's sister who hates the war and wants him to desert and became a spokesperson for peace. There is the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who falls for Billy during the pre-game ceremonies. There is the half-time show - a character in its own right - with a cast of hundreds, shoving, with marching bands, Destiny's child, roadies, back-stage fighting and ogling. There are the hangers on in the owners luxury box, and there are the thousands of fans who fawn over their "Bravo Squad" heroes. The silly things they say to the soldiers are about as inane as the platitudes that we offer to each other at a wake at the funeral home. They are meant to make the person uttering the nonsense feel that they have done "something" to help, but end up being just foolish and tiresome

Pat Conroy, who knows a thing or two about writing brilliantly about war called this novel "hilarious and heartbreaking." I agree. The book holds up a mirror to our society's response to soldiers, and if read in the right spirit, can help us do a better job of treating our fighting men and women more appropriately when they come home.



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