by Ben Fountain; HarperCollins, 2012; 320 pages; $25.99
It’s the “Catch-22 of the Iraq War,” says one conspicuous bullet of praise on the jacket of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Such a definitive statement inevitably colors one’s reading of Ben Fountain’s first novel, since it calls to mind World War II’s most influential work of fiction and pairs it with a nine-year conflict that has yet to establish any remarkable literary tradition. Though most writings on the war thus far seem to hinge on combat stories, Fountain, like Joseph Heller, takes his troops out of the fracas and into the funhouse for an erratic glimpse at what war does to people off the battlefield, rather than on it.
As the title suggests, the story takes place, largely, at a football game where the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad, also known as the “heroes of Al-Ansakar Canal,” enjoy their last stop on a two-week “victory tour.” The title character, Billy, carries the memory of their most brutal firefight with him into the Dallas Cowboys stadium, where he and his fellow soldiers are saluted, back-slapped and pampered by fans and team staff alike. As the boys are ushered through a melee of booze and cheerleaders, they are harangued by throngs of grateful civilians as well as a sly movie producer who’s itching to cut a deal with Bravo for the rights to their story. All the while, quiet and contemplative Billy Lynn, the very personification of the misplaced writer-in-uniform, begins to loath the public adulation. He sees their gestures as something toxic, a false sense of appreciation for a sacrifice that they can never fully understand.
Set in the middle of the last decade, the novel depicts the fervor of such early Bush-era conservatism with a vicious stroke of foul-mouthed wit. As Fountain follows Bravo Squad’s profanity-laced grunt-speak, the torrent of macho lingo blends perfectly with the author’s staccato style of storytelling. His rapid-fire delivery of consonant-choked visceral detail demands to be read at a runner’s pace, and it doesn’t let up until the reader’s mind is slathered in cerebral sweat. This style moves in lockstep with Heller’s “Catch-22,” as does the novel’s central question of whether the troop-supporting public represents the true enemy of the soldier, eager to send the average outbound warrior into the fray again and again.
Lance Hicks is an English major at Jacksonville State University.