This is my review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
After a heroic attack on the enemy which just happened to be filmed by an embedded TV crew, "Bravo squad" is touted round the States for a disorienting fortnight in an insensitive PR bid to revive flagging support for the Iraq War.
Billy Flynn is one of the soldiers, a decent and perceptive young man beneath a fairly thick layer of nineteen-year-old laddishness. As he tries to make sense of his unreal situation, we see the Bravos pawed like public property, fawned over by celebrities, glamorous couples and business tycoons who would not normally give them the time of day.
Inevitably, conversations tend to descend to the prurient question of what it is like to kill a man. Billy always manages to fob people off with the gung-ho answers they want to hear, but is left feeling that he has betrayed his comrade Shroom who died in the "heroic" attack. Beneath it all lurks the knowledge that Billy must return to the front, where there is a high probability he will meet his own death.
Although this may sound grim, the novel is often very funny – a blistering attack on the worst aspects of American culture: the tasteless mixture of God and mammon, rednecked patriotism, unquestioning sense of superiority fed by crass ignorance of the rest of the world. Since it will probably only appeal to the anti-war converted I cannot imagine what those parodied in the book would make of it.
I had to concentrate hard to grasp Ben Fountain's quicksilver train of ideas and cope with the American slang. I understand the criticism that Billy's inner thoughts are too often tangled up with the knowing, cynical voice of the articulate third person narrator, but you could argue this is the influence of Billy's deceased intellectual friend Shroom.
The unshackled style veers between moments of original beauty and moving insight, hyperbole, occasional corniness and cartoon-speak. I like the way Fountain uses the sounds of words rather than their correct spelling to convey how Billy often feels overwhelmed by his unfamiliar surroundings and lets everything "wash" over him: Eye-rack, Eaaaar-rock, nina leven, soooh-preeeeme sacrifice, etcetera. This also highlights the emptiness, lack of meaning of the sentiments poured over the Bravos.
I am not sure at what point Fountain's original and creative prose tips over into gimmickry,
of it all is sometimes a bit too much to take.
The scene where Billy returns home for Thanksgiving lost some of the momentum of what perhaps should have been a shorter novella for maximum effect, and reduced the tale to soap opera for a while.
Overall, it's an imaginative, somewhat shaming take on modern America.