Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Comments

  1. This is neither a criticism nor comment on either the book or the review of the book, but do people still join the armed forces to get out of jail? Like, is that still a thing that’s possible? Genuinely curious if anyone knows, I always assumed that was more of a Vietnam-era practice.

    • Generally, no, that’s not still a thing. In some limited cases, maybe, but the standards to join the military are the highest they’ve ever been, due to the shrinking size of the uniformed services, and so people who have been in that kind of trouble oftentimes are not even eligible to join.

    • Every branch of the Armed Services (except the Navy) has a provision that prevents applicants who are seeking alternatives to criminal prosecution from enlisting. Additionally, recruiters are no longer allowed to appear in courts or on behalf of applicants in attempts to sway decisions toward enlistment and away from incarceration. I believe most of these regulations were updated under Clinton and W.

    • In the Navy, you can sail the seven seas.
      In the Navy, you can avoid prison with ease.
      In the Navy.
      In the Navy.

    • Thanks Jeremy and John, I appreciate it. Glad to hear that’s not an ongoing policy as it seems rather exploitative (especially as it was used in our past).

    • It was exploitative, but it was also a really good thing for a lot of people too. I definitely don’t think it should be the norm, but it helped a lot of people who were looking at going down a very bad path end up making something good out of their lives, whether as career military or after they got out.

  2. Thanks for this. I read it as part of the Tournament of Books a few years back and it was my favorite of the two other Iraq novels it was up against in that year’s arbitrary play-in round.

    My favorite part was the locker and equipment room scene. Nothing better encapsulated the disparity in the US between war and home, wealth and poverty, entertainment and reality, than the soldiers looking at the ridiculous resources available to the Cowboys for playing and practicing their game while thinking about the crummy equipment they will return to use as they fight for their lives in Iraq.

    I just finished the only other football related novel I’ve read since then…The Throwback Special. It is even funnier, better written, and more sympathetic to its characters than BFLHW. And since it jumps in and out of the heads of 22 middle-aged men throughout its 200-some pages, it also hits home for this (nearly?) middle-aged father.

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