Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK
As a bookseller I am deeply cynical about most book comparisons used in marketing. If I never see another book compared to Silence of The Lambs or described as “the next Steig Larsson” it will be too soon. But unfortunately it is the easiest, quickest and shortest way to sum up a book. So in small way I can accept it, however when a classic book is used in the comparison it is a BIG call. If a blurb invokes To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm or another definitive work of western literature that has stood the test of time and many generations of readers it better be on the money or there should be hell to pay.
When I first came across a copy of this book alarm bells instantly went off. The first thing to catch my eye was the quote “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War”. Not only is Catch-22 a definitive work of western literature it is also a very distinctive and unique book. It is utterly absurd yet encapsulates the absolute core of what war is and what it does to the participants. Catch-22 doesn’t try to capture the reality of life as a World War Two Bomber Squadron it instead puts you into the mindset of what it was like to be in a world where people are trying to kill you while others a doing their best to keep you in harm’s way. The book did this so well it actually coined a new phrase in the English language.
So comparing a new book to Catch-22 is a VERY BIG call. However the person making this big call is Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War. From reading his two books, one fiction the other non fiction, I know he doesn’t do or say anything lightly. So this blurb had me very intrigued indeed.
I am fascinated by novels about war. My all-time favourite is The Thin Red Line by James Jones and in recent times Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is very different to these two books. It is also the first work of fiction I have read about Iraq and “the War on Terror” and it is set entirely on the home front. War novels are often confronting, brutal and present humanity in its rawest and most confronting form. This novel does all those things but away from the combat zone, in fact away from the war completely.
The story centres on Billy Lynn whose squad from Bravo Company are on a two week ‘victory’ tour of America. They were involved in a fierce fire fight with insurgents in Iraq which happened to be captured by a Fox News crew and beamed live across America, catapulting them to instant hero status. Now everybody wants a piece of them, including Hollywood. Billy Lynn recounts the two week ‘victory’ tour while watching the Cowboys/Bears Thanksgiving Day football game hours before they must ship back to Iraq.
War novels normally viscerally recount battles and personal experiences of combat, from up close and far away. Fountain turns the tables as he viscerally recounts what is going on at home while young men and women are killing and dying in their name. From the pageantry and tedium that professional sport has become to the almost bloodlust for war stories, the blind faith in, and total hypocrisy of, the “war on terror” as well as the real absurdity that is Hollywood and the way it functions on lies and the surreal nature of being caught in its sights.
The criticisms are unflinching yet you remain sympathetic towards the soldiers and what they are asked to do, both at war and at home. The humour and camaraderie of the soldiers sustains the book and Fountain uses language and phonetics skilfully, playing up the catch phrases of the war: “terrRist”, “nina leven”, “Eye-rack”, “dih-mock-cruh-see”. But it is the vast difference between the soldiers’ reality and everyone else’s that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity, the ignorance and the absolute bitterness that is war.
Catch-22 might be a bit of a stretch but the sensibility is definitely there. This is totally engrossing and full of both bitterness and empathy. It is what a great war novel should be: angry, absurd, compassionate and bewildering. It will make you question the how and the why of war, as it should, and is sure to cause a lot of debate.