Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK
So comparing a new book to Catch-22 is a VERY BIG call. However the person making this big call is Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War. From reading his two books, one fiction the other non fiction, I know he doesn’t do or say anything lightly. So this blurb had me very intrigued indeed.
I am fascinated by novels about war. My all-time favourite is The Thin Red Line by James Jones and in recent times Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is very different to these two books. It is also the first work of fiction I have read about Iraq and “the War on Terror” and it is set entirely on the home front. War novels are often confronting, brutal and present humanity in its rawest and most confronting form. This novel does all those things but away from the combat zone, in fact away from the war completely.
The story centres on Billy Lynn whose squad from Bravo Company are on a two week ‘victory’ tour of America. They were involved in a fierce fire fight with insurgents in Iraq which happened to be captured by a Fox News crew and beamed live across America, catapulting them to instant hero status. Now everybody wants a piece of them, including Hollywood. Billy Lynn recounts the two week ‘victory’ tour while watching the Cowboys/Bears Thanksgiving Day football game hours before they must ship back to Iraq.
War novels normally viscerally recount battles and personal experiences of combat, from up close and far away. Fountain turns the tables as he viscerally recounts what is going on at home while young men and women are killing and dying in their name. From the pageantry and tedium that professional sport has become to the almost bloodlust for war stories, the blind faith in, and total hypocrisy of, the “war on terror” as well as the real absurdity that is Hollywood and the way it functions on lies and the surreal nature of being caught in its sights.
The criticisms are unflinching yet you remain sympathetic towards the soldiers and what they are asked to do, both at war and at home. The humour and camaraderie of the soldiers sustains the book and Fountain uses language and phonetics skilfully, playing up the catch phrases of the war: “terrRist”, “nina leven”, “Eye-rack”, “dih-mock-cruh-see”. But it is the vast difference between the soldiers’ reality and everyone else’s that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity, the ignorance and the absolute bitterness that is war.
Catch-22 might be a bit of a stretch but the sensibility is definitely there. This is totally engrossing and full of both bitterness and empathy. It is what a great war novel should be: angry, absurd, compassionate and bewildering. It will make you question the how and the why of war, as it should, and is sure to cause a lot of debate.