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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Hardcover – May 1, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2012: Billy Lynn and his Bravo squad mates have become heroes thanks to an embedded Fox News crew’s footage of their firefight against Iraqi insurgents. During one day of their bizarre Victory Tour, set mostly at a Thanksgiving Day football game at Texas Stadium, they’re wooed by Hollywood producers, smitten by Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and share a stage at halftime with Beyonce. Guzzling Jack and Cokes and scuffling with fans, the Bravos are conflicted soldiers. “Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation,” writes debut author (!) Ben Fountain, who manages a sly feat: giving us a maddening and believable cast of characters who make us feel what it must be like to go to war. Veering from euphoria to dread to hope, Billy Lynn is a propulsive story that feels real and true. With fierce and fearless writing, Fountain is a writer worth every accolade about to come his way. --Neal Thompson
“[An] inspired, blistering war novel…Though it covers only a few hours, the book is a gripping, eloquent provocation. Class, privilege, power, politics, sex, commerce and the life-or-death dynamics of battle all figure in Billy Lynn’s surreal game day experience.” (New York Times)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not merely good; it’s Pulitzer Prize-quality good . . . A bracing, fearless and uproarious satire of how contemporary war is waged and sold to the American public.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“A masterful echo of ‘Catch-22,’ with war in Iraq at the center. …a gut-punch of a debut novel…There’s hardly a false note, or even a slightly off-pitch one, in Fountain’s sympathetic, damning and structurally ambitious novel.” (Washington Post)
“Fountain’s excellent first novel follows a group of soldiers at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day…Through the eyes of the titular soldier, Fountain creates a minutely observed portrait of a society with woefully misplaced priorities. [Fountain has] a pitch-perfect ear for American talk…” (The New Yorker)
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a big one. This is the brush-clearing Bush book we’ve been waiting for.” (Harper's Magazine)
“Brilliantly done . . . grand, intimate, and joyous.” (New York Times Book Review)
“For Memorial Day why not turn to a biting, thoughtful, and absolutely spot-on new novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk…This postmodern swirl of inner substance, yellow ribbons, and good(ish) intentions is at the core of Ben Fountain’s brilliant Bush-era novel.” (The Daily Beast)
“Ben Fountain combines blistering, beautiful language with razor-sharp insight…and has written a funny novel that provides skewering critiques of America’s obsession with sports, spectacle, and war.” (Huffington Post)
“A brilliantly conceived first novel . . . The irony, sorrow, anger and examples of cognitive dissonance that suffuse this novel make it one of the most moving and remarkable novels I’ve ever read.” (Nancy Pearl, NPR, Morning Edition)
“Seething, brutally funny…[Fountain] leaves readers with a fully realized band of brothers…Fountain’s readers will never look at an NFL Sunday, or at America, in quite the same way.” (Sports Illustrated)
“Biting, thoughtful, and absolutely spot-on. . . . This postmodern swirl of inner substance, yellow ribbons, and good(ish) intentions is at the core of Ben Fountain’s brilliant Bush-era novel.” (The Daily Beast)
“The Iraq war hasn’t yet had its Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five, but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a contender… A wicked sense of humor, wonderful writing and, beneath the anger and outrage, a generous heart.” (Tampa Bay Times)
“It’s a darkly humorous satire about the war at home, absurd and believable at the same time.” (Esquire)
“Darkly comic…Rarely does such a ruminative novel close with such momentum.” (Los Angeles Times)
“Fountain’s strength as a writer is that he not only can conjure up this all-too-realistic-sounding mob, but also the young believably innocent soul for our times, Specialist Billy Lynn. And from the first page I found myself rooting for him, often from the edge of my seat.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“[A] masterly . . . tightly structured book [with] a sprawling amount of drama and emotion.” (The Rumpus)
“Passionate, irreverent, utterly relevant Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk offers an unforgettable portrait of a reluctant hero. Ben Fountain writes like a man inspired and his razor sharp exploration of our contemporary ironies will break your heart.” (Margot Livesey)
“[T]he shell-shocked humor will likely conjure comparisons with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five…War is hell in this novel of inspired absurdity.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“A truly wondrous first novel.” (Shelf Awareness)
“[T]he Catch-22 of the Iraq War....Fountain applies the heat of his wicked sense of humor while you face the truth of who we have become. Live one day inside Billy Lynn’s head and you’ll never again see our soldiers or America in the same way.” (Karl Marlantes, bestselling author of Matterhorn)
“Ben Fountain stormed to the front lines of American fiction when he published his astonishing...Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. His first novel will raise his stature and add to his splendid reputation. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is both hilarious and heartbreaking.” (Pat Conroy)
“Fountain is the Pen/Hemingway Award winner of the bristly and satisfying Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, so I expect lots from this book.” (Barbara's Picks, Library Journal)
“Ben Fountain’s Halftime is as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days—an extraordinary work that captures and releases the unquiet spirit of our age, and will probably be remembered as one of the important books of this decade.” (Madison Smartt Bell)
“While Fountain undoubtedly knows his Graham Greene and Paul Theroux, his excursions into foreign infernos have an innocence all their own. In between his nihilistic descriptions, a boyishness keeps peeking out, cracking one-liners and admiring the amazing if benighted scenery.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
“So much of Fountain’s work...reads with an easy grace.... [S]ometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.” (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker)
“Here is a novel that is deeply engaged with our contemporary world, timely and timeless at once. Plus, it’s such fun to read.” (The Millions)
“The chasm between the reality and the glorification of war hasn’t been this surreal since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.” (Sacramento Bee)
“…wickedly affecting…Billy Lynn has courted some Catch-22 comparisons, and they’re well-earned. Fountain is a whiz at lining up plausible inanities and gut-twisting truths for the Bravos to suffer through.” (Philadelphia City Paper)
“[A] wonderfully readable book [which] does something similar to Why Are We in Vietnam?, asking hard questions about the cultural short-sightedness that contributed to our involvement in Iraq. As a veteran myself, I can attest that it’s spot on.” (BookRiot)
“To call Fountain’s work enjoyable would be an understatement because it quite simply is one of the best novels written in the past five years.” (Texas Books in Review)
“The best book about the Iraq War and Destiny’s Child that you’ll ever read.” (Entertainment Weekly)
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Top Customer Reviews
In other words, the book appeals to the average reader, which in this day and age is kind of a low standard. "But it's symbolic!" you might say. Yes, there is a lot of symbolism in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, although if you ask me I found a lot of it to be superfluous. The reason for this is simple: Fountain's message is so blatant and obnoxious that it would take some mental gymnastics to think he was conveying something different than what you think he was. The Iraq War was a mistake and the American people are to blame for how long it endured, what a controversial statement. That's not to say I'm against overtly political war novels on principle or anything, but it felt like there was so little to cling on to aside from the message. At least the book's inspirations had the skill and bravery to say something the American public hadn't before considered in their time; at this point, Fountain's message simply feels redundant and too upfront for its own good.
Really, if Fountain's novel proved to have solid literary merit aside from its message, it might actually be worthy of some awards, but as it stands I can't recommend it. The characters are too annoying and unlikable to care too much about, and while the prose can be solid it's often overtaken by some of the most irritating dialogue I've read in a long time. Many of the characters talk in a way which comes off as either exaggerated or stereotypical, once again bringing to mind the book's lack of nuance. The closest character we have to latch on to is Lynn himself, and even then he seems too "wise" for his age, resulting in a protagonist that I couldn't truly root for. The fact that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is getting a movie adaptation later this year is both ironic, considering what happens in the book, and appropriate because as a movie it can become even more digestible for those who wallow in mediocrity. If you're interested in a recent war novel that really did earn the respect it garnered, check out Tree of Smoke. Or hell, read Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five if you haven't already.
I say that as a veteran (of Desert Storm) and an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2007-09, so I have some first-hand knowledge with what he describes. To me, the voices and actions of the characters are dead-on accurate.
It's got some flaws, which I'll get to first so I can finish strong. In my mind, the flaws are because he's trying so hard at writing something big and memorable, and it gets away from him at times.
The conclusion veers into melodrama. Up until the last 40 pages or so, I could pretty much buy the events as possible real-life occurrences. But the end features a couple moments where I couldn't quite suspend disbelief.
While the civilians he describes behave realistically, there's times when it feels very much like the author's "meta rant" against the American mindset - he sets up some characters as one-dimensional straw men so he can show his disdain. I agree with what he's presenting, but it doesn't always feel like a story - more like he's trying to inject a point into the fictional narrative. Which is fine, but not if it's obvious like it sometime is.
Most of the time, the story is told in present-day perspective with some flashbacks. Very occasionally, he switches into describing the future, and that's awkward. For me, I would have liked no 'future look' at all.
So, okay, those things threw me off.
Everything else is very strong. Marlantes called it a "Catch 22" of the Iraq War - but that's not accurate, because to me it's not really a satire. Fountain isn't over-dramatizing events (except occasionally as I note), or exaggerating things for comic effect - it feels real, not deliberately over-the-top.
Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are often treated as props by the civilians they encounter - it might seem unlikely, but it's not. When I came back from Desert Storm, I was treated nicely, of course, but as a prop for the patriotic feelings for others - nobody cared about 'me,' but they did care about their opportunity to tell me how proud they were about America, my service, the troops, blah blah blah, and then I had to hear their two-cent opinion about every little tactical decision (I was a photographer who drove a Humvee - Gen. Schwarzkopf didn't keep me in his loop...). That disconnect comes across very accurately in Fountain's narrative.
This is what homecoming is like. So in the crazy situation that Fountain has put them in, the characters look for what's familiar - and that's their fellow soldiers.
The voice of those soldiers - all infantrymen - is spot on. This IS how infantrymen behave, especially when they're in a small group being gawked at. It's them against the world, and the fights they get into, arguments they have, flouting authority (but not their sergeant's), all ring very true.
Billy Lynn, the 19-year-old hero and main character, reminds me of some of the soldiers I met - very confident and self-assured, but not on a very deep level, like it wouldn't take much for the act to fall away. He's a hero you'll root for.
It's tough to describe the plot because I don't want to give things away. I think a reader should know not to expect some tragedy at the end that betrays your affection for the characters. There is a Hollywood subplot about a possible movie that's entertaining, and probably truthful, but I wouldn't know. A thinly-described parody of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is good for comic, and not-so-comic relief (he should have just named him). Obviously, a cheerleader comes into play.
Military readers should be aware of places they'll need to suspend disbelief - a Silver Star would take much longer to award than described here; I find it very hard to believe that the group of men would have to go back to Iraq at the conclusion of the "Victory Tour," and I wish Fountain came up with some kind of reason (even if contrived) to explain that; getting into fights in an Army dress uniform and then walking around afterwards and still look presentable would be very difficult.
But I really liked this story. I like any book that honestly tells a soldier's story. It's refreshing to read a book about the homecoming, or at least scenes at home, rather than another story that takes place in Iraq itself.
I think a military audience would really like this book, and will laugh and be annoyed at the right parts.
But I'm not sure the right civilian audience will ever read "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." It's a solid reminder, even in fictional form, that soldiers are not props for our own conflicted feelings of feel-good patriotism, which is so rarely backed up by actual deeds or service. If people have nothing to offer returning veterans but, "you know, what we really should do in Iraq/Afghanistan is..." then they should say nothing at all.