Before I get into my review of novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, I need to preface with how this book came into my possession.
Four years ago I worked at Book Soup, one of Los Angeles’ classic bookstores on Sunset Blvd. It was the literary hub of my dreams. I was working at the front register ringing guests up when I was told that author Maria Semple would be stopping by to sign a handful of books for us to sell. It was not unusual for authors to cruise in – even celebrities. And while I have never read a book by Maria Semple (still to this day), I am always immediately humbled by any New York Times best selling author.
After signing stacks of her bestselling novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple shopped around for her own reading list. When it came time for me to ring her up we started chatting. I told her I wanted to be a writer.
She said, “Well, if you want to be a writer you have to read this book.” She turned around to our New York Times Bestseller display and picked up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – a book I was unfamiliar with.
She handed it to me and said, “I’ll buy it for you – from one writer to another.”
To say I was touched was an understatement. I boasted to all of my co-workers that Maria Semple gifted me with a book! That a New York Times best selling author bought me – Scout the bookseller on Sunset Blvd – a book.
That was four years ago. One might be questioning why it took me so long to finally open the book up to read. When I went home from work that day and looked at the novel, I was truthfully uninspired by the first few pages.
It’s about the Iraq War? About a Superbowl halftime show with Destiny’s Child? About soldiers coming home from the battlefield?
I remember thinking, “This book is American.”
I was also not particularly interested in reading about wars – not even when it came to Hemingway.
But I also knew that I had to read it – it was a gift from a successful author. So I carried it with me for four years. It survived four moves – all in pristine condition. When I picked it up the other week there was no sign of wear and tear except for the outer pages tinted with an subtle aging yellow.
For whatever reason, four years later I started reading. And when I got to page 22, I came across a crafted sentence that perched my brain up; “Oh, this is why she wanted me to read this book!” I thought to myself.
The line was: “With all the varieties on display it’s like a migration scene from a nature documentary, all shapes, ages, sizes, colors, and income indicators, although well-fed Anglo is the dominant demographic.”
And this was the beginning of my love affair with Ben Fountain’s prose. It feels as if each word is poignantly purposeful. Each sentence is so meticulously crafted – with metaphors and descriptions like:
“…the first three made no appreciable dent in his armor-plated headache.” – page 293
“…forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town.” – page 79
“The stadium is huge. It is deformed. It is a deformation of the human mind.” – page 23
Each description describes something so simple through a multi-colored lens. You feel his touch on each word. His fingertip to pen or key.
In addition to his prose that is both methodical and lyrical, his story-crafting abilities peaked my interest.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is all about the Iraq War but the book does not step one foot in Iraq. The entire book is about the Bravo Squad on their victory tour of sorts through America for a few weeks over Thanksgiving in honor of their brave win on the battlefield. The narrative is centered around soldier Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old member of the Bravo Squad, and his philosophical and existential questioning of the America around him – the America he temporarily comes home to.
One line in particular summed up the entire book for me:
“A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one to the other.” – page 197
There is the war the American people believe – nationalistic, powerful, proud, God’s protection – and then there is the war the Bravo Squad fights – random, murderous, a tragedy served with a slice of brotherhood. The difference between the two – the war over here and the war over there – is portrayed brilliantly in the conversations American citizens have with the Bravo Squad and with Billy throughout their victory press tour.
Billy’s final understanding of the two different wars and his place in it all – his philosophical realization – fills me as a reader and as an American citizen with an empty facade; “They are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows…To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to war?”
Disguised amongst the “locker room talk” with the squad, the drinks, the lusting after the cheerleaders, the trying to meet Destiny’s Child at the SuperBowl half time show, it boiled down to a few things for Billy: the war is where he belongs because it somehow makes more sense to him than the America he has come back to visit and the nationalistic ideology of the war is more powerful and dangerous than the war itself.
Some of my favorite, most profound sentences that were packaged between everyday anecdotes include:
“One way or another he’ll always be your daddy, not even all-powerful death was going to change that.” – page 79
“He wants both, he wants the entire body-soul connect because anything else is just demeaning.” – page 72
“These toddlers, these infants, Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.” – page 46
“Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars.” – page 114
“Thus all our other emotions evolved as coping mechanisms for the purpose of possibly keeping us sane? And so you start to sense the humanity even in feelings of hate.” – page 115
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a read for the prose enthusiasts and the philosophically inclined. It is also for those who enjoy a good story – because the profound prose serves as the infused aspects of an otherwise entertaining and relatable narrative.
And to Maria Semple – thank you, thank you, thank you. I like to think it took me this long to read it because I was not ready to read Ben Fountain’s words four years ago – or at least I would not have received such momentous takeaways. And it is time I owe your novels some exploration (and I promise it won’t take me four years to pick up your book!). I immensely look forward to reading your prose as well.
To Ben Fountain and to Maria Semple – you have been my literary teachers.
To pick up a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, click here.
P.S. The book got made into a movie (an anecdote within the book; a Hollywood producer was looking to make the story of the Bravo Squad into a featured film) – so that is next on my to-do list!