Billy Lynn is a hero, part of the Bravo squad who bravely fought off insurgents in Iraq, to help keep America safe. That’s what the Bush administration want the world to think and they seize their opportunity for a Victory Tour, ending at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game. In reality, Bravo are a bunch of kids that didn’t have many options in life and are being sent round the country as a PR exercise.
They nod and chuckle as the Bravos pass, heartened by the sight of these fine, strapping American boys with their big broad shoulders and excellent manners and ability to eat everything in sight. Everyone is happy. It is a moment. A point has been made, assumptions proved, and now they can all go forth and enjoy the day.
I generally shy away from books about war told from an American perspective but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk actually addresses some of the very things that put me off. Billy didn’t want to join the army, seeking revenge on his sister’s ex, he trashed his car and faced either jail time or a stint in the army. He’s never had sex and wants nothing more than to find a girl in his short time at home. I did feel that things moved pretty quickly as most of the story is set over one day, but that must be how soldiers have to cope, making the most of their freedom whilst they can.
Poor Bravo are pretty much being used for propaganda, the “heroes” are passed around from rich to influential and held up as an example of how well the war effort is going. There are comparisons made between the football and war that essentially it is brutal and real yet the nation makes it into a spectacle. The whole idea of young, damaged men being paraded as celebrities just for surviving a horrible experience is one that is probably unique to America. It seems to be lacking somewhat in dignity. I’m not sure that the characters are immediately likable; they are the kind of young men I would move away from in a bar! But by the end, you see that their bravado and bluster is mostly a façade to avoid dealing with reality. I liked the quietly commanding sergeant, Dime, who keeps his boys in check and the idea that they were a family. One of the most endearing characters isn’t even present, Shroom, Billy’s friend who was killed yet shaped his young life so much in the short time they were together.
The plot mostly revolves around Bravo’s efforts (or their agent’s) to sell film rights for their experiences but it is Ben Fountain’s writing style that carries you through the pages. It holds a lot of truth yet contains humour and compassion. Whilst the subject matter might not have been my first choice, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing itself. I will say I struggled with some of the Texan speech, especially wondering who Nina Leven was (it’s actually 9/11). Fountain also cleverly spaces out words to show when Billy is overwhelmed and only hearing certain things.
Don’t expect an compassion for the other side, this is all about American views and the ability to ignore the horrors of war.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is published by Canongate in the UK and is now available in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
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