Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain


FF’s Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Dubbed “Bravo Squad”, the remaining soldiers of Bravo Company take a limo ride. Not exactly rock stars, they’re famous, but not so famous as to keep an SUV full of all-American beauties invested in them. There might get a movie made about them though. With them in a limo is Albert Ratner, a man whose movies has featured such salient stars as Ben Affleck and Cameron Diaz. And so the readers’ gleeful journey into the satirical war novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk begins, proficiently penned by Ben Fountain, author of the short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.

For a fan of war movies like myself, everything that’s been released lately (especially from the great mighty NetFlix!) ended up on my to-watch list. All the combat scenes sure are cool and it’s quite easy to forget that most of these stories are based on true events. This book is fiction, however, and is even easier to mistake for a true life story.

Billy, a nineteen-year-old war hero who fought in Iraq, is part of the famous and much praised Bravo team. They are all heroes. And on a Thanksgiving Day, these heroes are due to make an appearance at the Texas Stadium during the Dallas Cowboys halftime show. There, the crowd loves them. The outnumbered band of American soldiers whose battle at the Al-Ansakar Canal was caught on tape. Having come to the end of their Victory Tour and due to return to war after the halftime show, Billy Lynn’s thoughts and encounters during this day speaks volumes about the Iraq war and what it is that American soldiers really fought for.

There is a lot of thinking going on inside Billy. Wise thinking. His philosophical internal dialogue makes for pleasant reading on any day. He is young, however. Young and virginal, but he is experienced in a way that some wealthy American businessman talking about how “we fought in Iraq” can only dream of. We learn along the way that always present self-doubt and berating thoughts might be the reason why he has struggled to have someone special in his life. He philosophizes, ponders, and concludes throughout this Thanksgiving and unexpectedly, life gives him a pleasant encounter with Faison, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Other than Billy, Bravo squad is made up of such finely named specimens as A-bort, Sykes, Mango, Holiday, Lodis, Crack, Major Mack, and Sergeant Dime. The last is an object of fascination for Albert, the Hollywood producer. “Dime interests him, Dime the person and Dime the soldier, the entire phenomenon of Dime-ness loosed upon a square and unsuspecting world.” The author invests enough time on each of these Bravo men for readers to feel acquainted with. Getting to know them was like getting to know friends in the real world. In my journey through this book, these men felt as real as if they were standing beside me the entire way.

The author effortlessly shows readers how Billy feels about the praise soldiers tend to get from people when they come home from war. Though he identifies the power of the words of their moving praise, he doesn’t seem to see much worth in them. I got the sense that to him at least, this praise could be likened to a routine picture showed on television to the masses over and over again. How often is it that we see some Hollywood war movie that ends exactly with the kind of words that irritates the star of this story? To real soldiers these words might not be as meaningful to them as Hollywood, or any other movie or television company, makes it out to be. To real soldiers, as this book shows us, these words might just be that: words. Words spoken by a person who, in some moment of standing in awe in front of real men and women who risked their lives for their country, will forget each and every one of them come the next day, week, or month.

“Before love, hate, spite, rage, grief, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all, and as every combat soldier knows there are as many incarnations and species of fear as the Eskimo language has words for snow.” This is but an example of the out-of-nowhere funniness that readers can expect while Billy navigates the consequences of a brave war act caught on tape. Boredom is a word that I forgot. I could see young American soldiers reading this book with many rounds of “Exactly!” shooting out of their mouths.

So, Billy and the rest of the Bravo team did something amazing. There is a video about it that went viral. And they’re working on a movie deal. Sweet, since we all know the horror stories of soldiers who return home to see their lives start spiraling downward. The hook of the whole book is all fascinating, but the great annoyance I felt at not being told from the very beginning or in the first few chapters what precisely made the Bravo soldiers such stars was just mind boggling. Constantly I read with this question dancing around in my head like a ballerina stuck in a time loop: What did these guys do? Eventually, I learned what happened, but by that time it was just like, Thanks for clearing that up for me.

Ben Fountain makes writing real American dialogue look humorously easy, making his characters speak almost audibly and not just on the page. One day has never felt so long though, but the author excels at making readers grasp the undeniable bigness of it all. What happens after the much anticipated halftime show surely shows an actual wrongness that people know of, understand, and even discuss, but to admit what this wrongness is is to sail across dangerous waters. A promising read for fans of post-war fiction novels.

Free paperback copy received from Penguin Random House SA in exchange for a review. Click here to view the book on their site.

Kindle Edition:

Publisher: Ecco
Date Published: May 1, 2012
Genre: Satire
Pages: 325
View on Amazon


Published by Frank Frisson

Living in Cape Town, South Africa. People often tell me that I should get out more, but I'd rather read my brains out.

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