I thought this book was really excellent. It is hugely enjoyable and brilliantly written - engrossing, funny and extremely wise and shrewd about its subject and its characters.
The narrative has been well summarized here and elsewhere: briefly, Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers of Bravo squad were filmed in a heroic firefight in Iraq and the Bush administration is now shipping them around the USA on a highly publicised "Victory Tour" to bolster support for the war. The book is an account of their last day of the tour seen through Billy's eyes and serves as a commentary on contemporary USA and its attitudes. It's a great read: excellently structured, involving and with a cast of brilliantly drawn characters including Billy himself who is a thoroughly engaging protagonist.
Ben Fountain satirises not so much the war itself as things like the hypocrisy, wilful ignorance and exploitation which surround it. He also shares JD Salinger's contempt for the phoney and how it has pervaded modern life. For example, of a rich businessman working a room: "Norm is confident, absolutely, he is the king of self-esteem, but this is the confidence of self-help tapes and motivational mantras, confidence learned as one learns a foreign language, and so the accent lingers in his body language, a faint arthritic creak in every smile and gesture." The book is full of these gems of insight as well as brilliant descriptive phrases like Billy ecstatically holding a beautiful cheerleader in his arms as she "breathes clouds of glory in his face," and I found the description of the half-time extravaganza so vivid as to feel I was there in Billy's shoes.
Some people have suggested that this is the Catch-22 of the Iraq war, but I'm not sure I agree. I think the style is closer to Hunter S. Thompson than to Joseph Heller, and I would describe it more as the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas of the Iraq War. It stands on its own merits, though and it's a simply brilliant, engaging, thought-provoking read and very, very warmly recommended.
The story of `Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' is a sublime mixture of humanity and hilarity. Along with other soldiers of the Bravo squad in Iraq Billy has been hailed as a hero after a fearful firefight which was captured by TV news and is regarded as worthy of being made into a Hollywood movie. The soldiers' role is to bolster support for the Iraq war and they have been sent on a public relations tour of stage managed receptions in America before being returned back to combat duties. Apart from minor reflections and commentaries the time span covered by the narrative is concentrated on their final engagement at an American football game, though within this restricted period author Ben Fountain manages to develop credible characters to support his satirical tale. Billy is somewhat of a reluctant hero and is more capable of contemplation and consideration than other members of the squad apart from the Sergeant. His is a story of courage, hope and optimism set against fear, despair and foreboding to which Ben Fountain skilfully overlays propaganda and manipulation. `Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' is a poignant and powerful indictment on the Bush era and America's attitudes to war.
Interwoven amongst revelations to Billy's background, his family, and his confusion over the future there are thought provoking insights with ample scope for interpreting pros and cons of waging war to support democracy and freedom set against the costs of trauma and death. Also there is scope for humour from the camaraderie, even love, within a group of soldiers similar to bonding between mountaineers in civvie street. There is bad language and the soldiers exhibit rather too much vulgarity but it is justified via self deprecation. Also there is irritating American slang but it serves to highlight the limited intellect of "grunt" soldiers, and it allows a variety of encounters and experiences to be illustrated. Ben Fountain cleverly switches between arrogant, abusive behaviour and mild good manners, and he uses the Bravo squad to comment on American obsessions with big business, political pressures, religious authority, "Hollywood" influences, celebrities etc. as well as the human nature of ordinary citizens and their perspectives on the Iraq war. `Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' provides evocative descriptions of many elements of life in America, particularly with a portrayal of American football as dull and dreary. For British readers the narrative provides a revealing view of America in addition to its main thrust as an exposé on the ethics and morality of war.
Billy Lynn and Bravo squad are in Dallas on the last day of a victory tour around the USA after an heroic firefight in Iraq goes viral on YouTube.
Fountain's novel is a coruscating and funny critique of modern America condensed into one day spent as guests of honour at the Dallas Cowboys football stadium.He shows the vacuity of much of modern life through this allegorical tale as Bravo are trapped watching a boring game in which what little activity there is seems squeezed in between interminable commercials,which are even broadcast in the stadium itself.He compares the gigantic,almost superhuman,coddled millionare players to the young soldiers and the unspoken question is why are they so well rewarded for playing a game that's barely a sport anymore whilst the young GI's get little more than a victory tour and the transitory admiration of the confused and ignorant supporters of the war.
Everyone wants something from the soldiers: the fans who want an autograph;the rich elite who want a story that will validate their belief that America is doing the right thing;Albert the ageing movie producer who wants to become a Hollywood player again by making a film of Bravo's story even if it means having Hilary Swank play the part of Billy and Norm,the cheerfully ruthless owner of the Cowboys,who wants to cash in on the Bravos story.Even Faisson,the beautiful cheerleader Billy has a brief but passionate romance with and who he instinctively knows will think less of him if he does not return to Iraq.
The comparison to Catch 22 is odious,this is a good book but that was a great one that changed people's views and laid the groundwork for books such as this,but which also ended on a note of optimism.Here the reader wishes Billy and his comrades well,but we are all more cynical now and there is the constant nagging fear that only death awaits them on their return to Iraq.
on 10 August 2012
Much has been written by other reviewers about this wonderful book, nearly all doing justice to a significant addition to a great American novel tradition. Above the political and social commentary there is the wonderful creation that is Billy Lynn. He is the natural descendant of Huck Finn - not naturally articulate in speech but hugely articulate in his emotional understanding of his world and his naive questioning of the icons of market capitalism seem to echo all of us in questioning something that is beyond normal comprehension.
It is for this reason that the possibly overblown metaphorical language of the novel, particularly when describing Billy's reactions to the craziness and distortions around him, actually works. The novel defies us to underestimate Billy's capacity for feeling.
Like Gatsby, Billy is looking for something "commensurate to his capacity for wonder", and the love story at the core of the novel is especially poignant
This is a novel in the great American tradition.
P.S It is also very funny
on 3 July 2012
I first heard of Ben Fountain through Malcolm Gladwell's 'Late Bloomers' feature in the New Yorker. When I heard he had a novel coming out, expectations were naturally high...and boy does this book live up to and exceed those expectations. For a debut novel it is so well-structured and paced, with really memorable characters, a fantastic narrative perspective and that perfect balance of the hilarious, the satirical and the sentimental. Jonathan Franzen once said that a really good book leaves a little hole in your life and that's exactly how I felt about this book. It's a book that really feels significant, a must-read for anyone who loves top literary fiction and anyone who feels fiction can and should say something about the world we live in (which should be everybody!).
Billy Lynn and the other surviving soldiers in his Bravo team are touring US cities as tools in a campaign to create more support for the war in Iraq after they were caught on national tv in a heroic fight again insurgents.
They are all very much aware of the fact they're being used and try to benefit in monetary terms by getting a movie contract as well as having some girl fun before they have to return to duty and serve out their term.
We follow Billy's thoughts and actions - how he concomitally resents and appreciates people's reactions to the soldiers. Strong feelings are held by most about the subject but he and his friends know that nobody will ever truly understand their situation so they just lip-ad and make their own little injokes about it all.
It is a book with much food for thought about young soldiers in situations way over their heads and who have a responsibility and see things that no 19 year olds - or anybody else for that matter - should experience; about how the ordinary people see war and how removed they really are from reality when it comes to a war they themselves pay for over the taxes and which many have supported - or opposed.
It is extremely well written and really my only main criticism is that I can't tell where Billy Lynn and the author start and end and it becomes a problem as Billy is portrayed as a young man who - although a sensible and brave one - spends most of his time goofing around with his mates and thinking about girls and the next shot of whiskey and it is a bit difficult to reconcile him with the well-formulated and thought-out arguments or thoughts and observations that we are constantly confronted with in the book which surely has been put forward in that form by somebody older and better educated. But that criticism aside well worth a read
Back in 1988 Ben Fountain left his job as a property lawyer in Dallas, Texas, to write at his kitchen table; his first book, the acclaimed short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was not published until 18 years later, in 2006.And now his debut novel has appeared , garnering ecstatic comparisons with Catch 22 and many other great American novelists. There is no doubt that this is a terrific novel , astute, sharp ,wry , biting and beautifully written , but it is nowhere near as good as Catch 22.
After being filmed in a fierce fire fight against a bunch of insurgents in Iraq 2004 Bravo company are national heroes in America .As a reward they have been garnished with numerous medals and sent home on a two-week propaganda tour. The novel is set on the last day, just before they fly back to Iraq as they appear at a Dallas Cowboys football game, due to be paraded at half -time like Lara Croft cheerleaders while Beyonce gyrates and cavorts about.
As the group of soldiers are passed around like the corporate barbecue they encounter the mega-watt personality of the Cowboys owner , a film producer who wants to put them in a film starring Hilary Swank ( or is it Jamie Lee Curtis ?), but set in World War Two, Cheerleaders, numerous friends of the Bushes-"Lovely couple"- and the players themselves ,who only want to know about their guns and how it feels to shoot someone in the head.
Ostensibly everything is seen through the eyes of the titular Billy Flynn, a nineteen year old conscript who cannot understand "Being honoured for the worst day of your life." Where one of his friends died in his arms. Billy is surprisingly erudite and philosophical for a supposed hick nineteen year old , especially as he is nursing an Olympian sized hangover and is so far out of his comfort zone he might as well be on the moon.
The novel is patently satirical and not only makes point about war and the rich white men who send poor men of any ilk off to fight them but about corporate America , celebrity and just how thunderingly dull American Football is. Reams of smart metaphors and similes zip past, and the dialogue really zings -like a wasp making for a picnic. On the down side a couple of chapters drag on a bit. The one where Destiny's Child perform could actually be classed as monotonous but overall this is a novel well worth reading .
"The past is a fog that breathes out ghost after ghost", but the past is so often worth revisiting to make a point about the present ...and the future.
Billy Lynn is a nineteen year-old soldier in the Iraq War. His Bravo squad has been involved in a fierce gun battle with a group of insurgents. A short burst of brutality has left Billy's friend dead - plus most of the Iraqis. The whole brief episode has been captured by Fox News and has gone viral round the world. In America Bravo squad are invited on a Victory Tour so that grateful citizens can honour them and thank them for their courage. But the whole Victory Tour has become a PR event for the Bush administration in an attempt to reassure the public that the war is being won and that right will prevail.
The book takes place over one day of the tour at the Texas Stadium of the Dallas Cowboys. Billy has become increasingly cynical about the way they are being exploited - but is still filled with uncertainties and unanswered questions. They have been told that their exploits may be made into a movie and they are all excited by this - even though it has been suggested that Hilary Swank should play one of the leads. They are also excited at the thought of meeting Destiny's Child who will be performing during the half-time break. Bravo squad know there will be a role for them during half-time but no-one has told them what this will be.....
Ben Fountain has produced a brilliant book. It takes a satirical look at how these young men are being used and exploited both overseas and at home. The language is vibrant and just hits all the right notes for a modern novel featuring young men. The only criticism I would make is that some of Billy's thoughts and observations are too sophisticated and incisive for a poorly educated nineteen year-old.
I hope this important book is read by lots of people - it really is terrific.
This book is a polemic on the `modern war `and at its centre is Billy Lynn. He comes from a family where the father went from being a self absorbed disc jockey with a double life to a right wing fundamentalist Christian -because that was where the money as at. He has been forced to join the army after seeking extra judicial reparation against one of his sisters ex, toe rag, boyfriends. He lands up in Bravo Company and is shipped off to Iraq.
Whilst there Bravo get involved in a massive fire fight against Iraqi Jihadists and it is all picked up by a Fox news crew. This gets beamed around the World, catapulting these unsung heroes to stardom and more importantly a physical representation of the war in a positive light and thus all American heroes. We pick up the story as they near the end of `The Victory Tour', for two weeks the surviving Bravos have been carted around America being shown off to the public and media in a fever of patriotic self pleasuring. They are now at the Dallas Cowboys football game and are undergoing a whole series of hoop jumping that at least is inconsiderate and at worst is humiliating. Billy is only nineteen and has missed out on a lot of what life has to offer including the opposite sex. His guiding hand in Bravo was `Shroom' who was killed during their fire fight. Whilst the others act as an adequate support network especially so Sergeant Dime, Billy still has to do a lot of soul searching without the adequate education to properly add up all of the options. He also gets to meet the Cheerleaders.
We also have a sub plot of Albert, the Oscar winning film maker who wants to make the defining film of the Iraq war; that being their story. He is constantly trying to get Hilary Swank involved as well as do the Hollywood schmooze deals that are always just about to come off. As the clock ticks down to Bravo having to return to the front line all the issues start to come to a head.
This is an ambitious book and Ben Fountain has tackled that ambition, head on. Comparisons with `Catch 22' are fair, as that book dealt with the politics of war as this does and dealt with the emotions of the ordinary soldier or `grunt' and how the humanity is often drilled out and all that is left in place is a loyal soldier with a possible life of dysfunctionality laying ahead of him if by some miracle he actually survives.
This book also has a lot of humour and character study, Fountain does an excellent job at painting the picture and getting under the skin of his characters and constant references to real people give it an immediacy and authenticity. He also seems to understand the soldier's lot too and made that palpable in its naked awfulness. Whilst this is an excellent book, it is not an easy read, and that is a good thing, but I ended up really liking it hence my rating. But it is one of those books that I have been thinking about ever since I put it down, and it was one of those books that around half way through I wasn't sure if I wanted to finish it and yet by the end wanted to know more. Whatever your take on the Iraq war or books about said war this is still an excellent effort and I hope will become a classic.
Meet Billy Lynn, American infantryman of Bravo squad. It is Thanksgiving Day and the remaining members of the squad are at a Dallas Cowboys match, culminating their PR return to the US, given medals by the President and displayed in key positions around the country. These soldiers are heroes of Iraq.
With a movie being thought about their heroic actions there is a rumour that Hilary Swank wants to play Billy's role. As we follow Billy and his fellow squaddies throughout the afternoon we come to see how crazy life can be. With people coming up to them telling them what heroes they are, how brave they are and how proud they are of them it all becomes a bit surreal. Behind the scenes of the football stadium they see that the players are probably better equipped and more money spent on them per head than the Army could ever afford. They are sent to get the footballers autographs, as if these people are the heroes, and not vice versa.
Over this afternoon Billy sees how mad the world really is. They are being looked at as superheroes, sent to a war by politicians who dodged the draft for Vietnam, but who are now warmongers. One of Billy's sisters wants him to go AWOL, no one really knows what the fighting is for, and all everyone wants to know is if they are winning.
This is a well written and interesting book that is more thoughtful than laugh out loud, although there are some quite funny moments. Although a novel each chapter does seem to read a bit more episodic, as if this could have been written more as a series of interconnecting short stories. What is funny being English, is how great Americans think they are and how they are the best at everything. After a while though this does become a little bit grating, and it makes you wonder whether Americans will actually realise that this is what makes everyone else in the world laugh at them. I think that this could be a good book for a reading group as it does offer quite a few subjects that can lead to lengthy discussions. If you are looking for something that will having you laughing out loud all the time, then this isn't it, but if you are looking for something perhaps a bit deeper, and definitely more thoughtful, then this could be for you.