Review: Absurd day for soldier in 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk'

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
A Novel

Ben Fountain
Ecco: 320 pp. $25.99


A casual observer might see in Billy Lynn a dutiful Iraq War soldier, a trash-talking 19-year-old popping a beer before noon, a muscled-up guy tussling with his buddy or a virgin falling for a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. He is, by turns, all of the above; what makes him special is what's inside his head.

In Ben Fountain's first novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," Billy and the other surviving members of Bravo Squad are home from Iraq, mid-war, on a victory tour. The novel takes place in one day, a compression of time that allows Fountain, who is in his 50s and previously published a collection of stories, to stretch Billy's internal life to tragicomic proportions.

The day is Thanksgiving, and the eight Bravo Squad soldiers are being trucked out for a patriotic show during halftime at a Cowboys game. They have a full agenda: meet-and-greets with rich football fans, a news conference and a photo op with the cheerleaders. If they're lucky, they'll brush up against Destiny's Child, the halftime show's star attraction. Accompanying them is Albert Ratner, an award-winning Hollywood producer who promises them $100,000 each for the film rights to their story.

Bravo Squad fought bravely in a battle that was caught on video and went viral. That's why they're back in the U.S., heroes from a war in which little has gone right. "You have given America back its pride," says Norm, the Cowboys' owner; even as he accepts this praise, Billy thinks, "America? Really? The whole damn place?"

The soldiers are treated well, limo'd, fed and beveraged. But the litany of rhetoric about the war has become so familiar that Billy hears little more than phonetic buzzwords: "terrRist … nina leven … currj … ire way of life" which we read scattered across a mostly blank page. Despite their heroism, they have to go back; they're on their last day in America before returning to Iraq.

Each of the soldiers has a nickname, the origins of which are as convoluted as cockney slang; we know them as Mango, A-bort, Crack. They joke in a swelling chorus, sharp and fast, showing a lively camaraderie. Their supervisor, Sergeant Dime, is the standout, a live wire of intellect and personality. Billy sticks close, watching to see how he is who he is.

Billy used to look up to Shroom, the squad philosopher. But Shroom is gone — dead in the firefight. Billy cycles back to their conversations, about books and fear and fate. He depends on Shroom's wisdom: A tangle with the law pushed him into the Army before he could finish high school.

That truncated education seems at odds with Billy's heightened narration. "One second the Bravos are the sludgiest sort of street-corner pervs, and the next they are the nation's very spine and marrow, yes, near to the holy they are, angelic warriors of America's crusader dreams," he observes. The distinction helps to underscore the unusually explicit note on the copyright page: This is a work of "pure fiction."

Fountain's novel is not a work of realism; it's an über-story, defined by irony and metaphor. Texas Stadium stands in for America, where the wealthy in their special section have access and privilege completely alien to Billy and his fellow soldiers. He and Mango sneak off to smoke a joint with a Hispanic waiter, who says he's thinking of joining up. "Don't," the soldiers say, but the man explains his reasoning. "What else is there," Mango assents, and each man repeats it. This is what they have.

Lest this seem unbearably grim, there is plenty to keep things light. Take, for instance, the chapter in which Albert attaches not George Clooney or Brad Pitt to his movie but Hilary Swank — which means someone in the all-male Bravo Squad stands to get a Hollywood sex change. Then there's the prospect of the halftime show, which looms larger and more ridiculous the closer it gets.

An unexpected propulsive ending awaits Billy once the moving parts align: A pending movie deal, Sergeant Dime's particular leadership, the halftime spectacular, the cheerleader, the desire to stay safe at home instead of going back to Iraq. Rarely does such a ruminative novel close with such momentum.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com