Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Every year when Christmas is approaching our local supermarket puts Christmas cards out by the registers. The idea is to gather as many signatures as possible before sending the cards off to some of the troops. On the one hand the effort is nice. At least someone remembers those soldiers are still over there. But on the other hand there's a certain satisfaction in signing one of the cards that is undeserved for such a tiny action. This attitude is the main subject of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
A violent fight with Iraqi insurgents has made the Bravo squad into American heroes. So the army has shipped the surviving members back to America to appear in a Dallas Cowboy's halftime show. After the show they are scheduled to return to Iraq to continue their tour of duty. They fully expect to stay there for a long time due to the government's stop-loss policy, which means that any soldier can be kept in the military for as long as they're needed. But for now they're home and Billy Lynn, the young man whose actions during the fight are celebrated the most, gets a chance to see his family and to connect with one of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
During their leave in America the soldiers are constantly greeted with “Thank you for your service” and “We support the troops.” But the people who say those things then either pull back into their own lives or, worse yet, exploit the heroes. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys, named Norm Oglesby in Ben Fountain's novel, is the most serious offender as he negotiates the film rights to their story. Again, here is a mixed motivation. Oglesby appears to be honoring the troops, but he's doing so in a way that will earn honor for himself and plenty of money as well.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has a second subject which is just as interesting, although a little less unique. When America had a draft there were lots of soldiers sent to war who hadn't volunteered. Without the draft our military is filled with people who either wanted to be there, had thought they would only be spending a couple of days each month at an Army reserve center, or simply had no other options. Billy Lynn is different. He was told he had to join by a judge. But while he is in the army he finds men he admires, especially Shroom, a soldier who was killed in the battle that brought fame to the Bravo troops. He doesn't want to be there, but he also doesn't want to let down the people who depend on him or disappoint a few of the people who admire his warrior status.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is wonderful in the way it presents the complicated responses brought about by war, for both the soldiers and the people who stay behind. It's earned the praise it has received.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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