I had read a little about this novel several years back, but had never taken the plunge because its topics (war in Iraq and American football) are, to my mind, a bit overdone lately and uninteresting, respectively. Nonetheless, though, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and the winner of that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. And this year, director Ang Lee’s film adaptation has recently hit theaters, and, based on the trailers I’ve seen, it looks pretty amazing.
So I picked up a used paperback copy and dove in. I read it in about three days, and my immediate conclusion is that Ben Fountain is a fabulous writer. There’s a whole cavalcade of characters in a kind of swirling maelstrom of events, and yet he manages to finesse these scenes, and all the dialogue and interaction, with nuance, grace, and a wonderful kind of gritty poetry.
Plot-wise, the events of the book all occur on one single day. Fountain manages to choreograph the novel’s pace quite masterfully by interspersing the internal monologue of our principal protagonist—conveying all the necessary backstory—with the action and dialogue of the immediate single day’s worth of scenes that comprise the novel as a whole.
In short, the soldiers of Bravo Squad, a motley assemblage of American soldiers, were recently involved in a bad-ass firefight in Iraq, which happened to be caught entirely on video by an embedded reporter, and, owing to said video footage, they’re now quite famous and very much the topic of conversation all over the country. So the Army has sent them home to do a kind of victory tour, where they’re guests on talk shows, guests at various parades, and, on this day, guests of the Dallas Cowboys owner for a game at Cowboys stadium. Our protagonist, Billy Lynn, depicted remarkably by Fountain, is struggling in many ways not only because he finds it difficult to cope with suddenly being so in the limelight and away from the constantly-on-edge lifestyle of being a soldier in Iraq, but also because he is absolutely dreading his imminent return to Iraq, which is happening the next day. It’s a twisted, painful dilemma Fountain depicts; this simultaneous wanting and not wanting.
Furthermore, it’s quite a feat of storytelling bravado Fountain pulls off here: slowly detailing a single day’s action over the course of 300-plus pages, and yet keeping we readers absolutely enthralled. It’s a remarkable read.