Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

4.3 88
by Ben Fountain

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A finalist for the National Book Award!

Three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare with Iraqi insurgents has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. Now they're on a media-intensive nationwide tour to reinvigorate support for the war. On this rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of the

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A finalist for the National Book Award!

Three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare with Iraqi insurgents has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. Now they're on a media-intensive nationwide tour to reinvigorate support for the war. On this rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside Destiny's Child.

Among the Bravos is Specialist Billy Lynn. Surrounded by patriots sporting flag pins on their lapels and Support Our Troops bumper stickers, he is thrust into the company of the Cowboys' owner and his coterie of wealthy colleagues; a born-again Cowboys cheerleader; a veteran Hollywood producer; and supersized players eager for a vicarious taste of war. Over the course of this day, Billy will drink and brawl, yearn for home and mourn those missing, face a heart-wrenching decision, and discover pure love and a bitter wisdom far beyond his years.

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Editorial Reviews

The best novel I read in 2012 for idle diversion, as opposed to those I read to review (which included some gems), is Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a first novel that follows the author's justly acclaimed short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. The present book joins a growing body of novels about the screen age's dominant species of bad faith: the manufacture of "reality" as a consumer product and means of control. Put that way, it sounds joyless, knuckle-rapping, and 100 percent simple-minded, but the books I have in mind are exactly the reverse. They are acerbic black comedies and all the more ingeniously devastating for it. I am thinking of such novels as Max Barry's The Company, Jess Walter's The Zero and Beautiful Ruins (both of which I did review with pleasure), and, at a stretch, I might add this year's The Fear Index, a chilling, strangely underrated thriller by Robert Harris.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is set in the now-demolished Texas Stadium during the presidency of George W. Bush. Nineteen- year-old Billy joined the Army right out of high school as an alternative to an ironclad felony charge for trashing the car of his sister's former fiancé and chasing the despicable would-be M.B.A. with a crowbar. He had his reasons. We meet him back from Iraq, at the end of a two-week "Victory Tour" with the eight surviving physically able members of his unit, a squad Fox News, in its branding wisdom, has dubbed Bravo Company. The network has anointed the soldiers heroes for a bloody action at a place called Al-Ansakar Canal; and, though the men were certainly brave — Billy foremost among them for trying to save his dying buddy — the crucial detail is that the battle was caught on film, footage now "viraling through the culture." Only two days away from returning to Iraq, Bravo is sharing with Beyoncé the role of halftime pièce de résistance for the Thanksgiving Day game between Cowboys and Bears. At the same time, the squad is party to a possible movie deal being drummed up by a Hollywood creature called Albert ("black cashmere overcoat and cashmere scarf, and sleek, dainty loafers that appear to be made of pliable chocolate bars").

Here I have to say that if I had not been assured and reassured by my very best friend that this novel was for me, I might have bailed out at page 39, the second time the format explodes into scattered words and phrases:

And so on, stutter-stepping down the page. Only a few more such eruptions occur, but why they do is a genuine mystery, because the rest of the book is simply, unimpeachably brilliant.

Let's start with Texas Stadium, rising hideously to swell to "Death Star proportions" as Bravo approaches it in a stretch Hummer. Though a Texan, Billy has never actually seen the place except "through the expurgating medium of TV." It is a horror, with greater horror underpinning the image: The stadium's inner spaces, even those carved out for owner and rich patrons, are cheerless and shoddy, "concrete walls and cheap all-weather carpet that wicks the cold up through the floor in a palpable draft." At night, the stadium plaza "is lit like a prison exercise yard, all glaring white lights and jabby shadows." And the immense compass of the stands is an existential nightmare: Climbing up the rows, Bill finds himself "fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow." This dreadful place distills the truth of America media culture, the force that has transformed Bravo from insignificant human beings to a "floating hologram of context and cue," and that truth is that behind the veil of fantasy and wishful thinking lies a crude and ugly world.

Everything — or at least the idea of everything — is laid on for the heroes: turkey dinner, souvenir footballs, "personalized" photos of themselves with owner Norm Oglesby, introduction to the cheerleaders (bodies "firm as steel-belted radials"), and endless, burdensome adoration. The last comes in the shape of their own huge images on the Jumbotron, the pious, plucking hands of countless fans, and ecstasies of onanistic gratitude from people for whom emotion can be reality because they have nothing at stake, people, that is, who have never, and never will, set foot in a combat boot. For Billy:
His ordeal becomes theirs and vice versa, some sort of mystical transference takes place?. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they're being good when they think of the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness. One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is her gratitude. Another asks if we are winning, and Billy says we're working hard. "You and your brother soldiers are preparing the way," one man murmurs, and Billy knows better than to ask the way to what. The next man points to, almost touches, Billy's Silver Star. "That's some serious hardware you got," he says gruffly, projecting a flinty, man-of-the- world affection. "Thanks," Billy says, although that never seems quite the right response. "I read the article in Time," the man continues, and now he does touch the medal, which seems nearly as lewd as if he'd reached down and stroked Billy's balls. "Be proud," the man tells him, "you earned this."
Rarely has a war been waged with such effortless, gaseous self- congratulation as this one, and Fountain is a virtuoso of its fulsome, self- regarding banalities, unctuous bromides, and the patter of the herd: every blatting note perfectly rendered. An oilman tells of his own steadfast commitment: "Some of my friends' kids are serving over there with you?. So it's a personal thing with me, boosting domestic production, lessening our dependence on foreign oil. I figure the better I do my job, the sooner we can bring you young men home."

Even though Billy is somewhat more articulate of thought than he might have been were he not a literary creation, he has a back-story that fleshes him out as a believable character. His are the eyes and the sensibility through which underlying reality is glimpsed, one whose animating force, he comes to see, is money.
Life in the Army has been a crash course in the scale of the world, which is such that he finds himself in a constant state of wonder as to how things come to be. Stadiums, for example. Airports. The interstate highway system. Wars.? He imagines a shadowy, math-based parallel world that exists not just beside but amid the physical world, a transparent interlay of Matrix-style numbers through which flesh-and-blood humans move like fish through kelp. This is where the money lives, an inter-based realm of code and logic, geometric modules of cause and effect.? It seems the airiest thing there is and yet the realest, but how you enter that world he has no idea except by passage through that other foreign country called college.
Even if they survive their next tour of duty — and however many more the present "stop-loss" policy generates — Billy and his fellow grunts will never be part of that world. And just how little they are valued in fact — which is to say, in financial terms — is made increasingly clear in the darkly comic negotiations over the hoped-for movie option agreement, the proposed figure dwindling to peanuts. It is the bootless dickering over making the film, as well as Billy's unlikely romance with a cheerleader and some gratifyingly bad behavior on the part of Bravo that serve as the book's plot. Anything more complex would be wasted in the boisterous presence of the exceedingly funny, wickedly skewering set pieces, each lit up by Fountain's genius for metaphor and imagery. The book is effervescent with them as "players come jogging onto the field like rhinos on the plod," and Billy is gobbled up by "the medias" whose "cameras-click away like parakeets cracking seeds" and who "hoover up his words with sleek little recording gadgets that look like protein bars." One has to fight the urge to quote the whole book.

Throughout this marvelous novel, the truly fantastic sham represented by stadium and players, and the power of the money that engendered them grows: If only this were reality, the solution to the unraveling war in Iraq would be at hand: Send in the NFL! Strangely — or otherwise — when Billy invites the players to do just that, join the Army, one millionaire warrior snorts with astonishment: " 'We got jobs, Fah like, wha, three years? Break our contract an' all.' Hilarious. They're laughing. Little squeals and snuffling yips escape their mouths."

The whole glorious novel is an intoxicating mixture of flamboyance and deadpan, of high-caliber wit and perfectly measured bathos. This is media America at war. Mission accomplished.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.79(d)

What People are saying about this

Nancy Pearl

“A brilliantly conceived first novel . . . The irony, sorrow, anger and examples of cognitive dissonance that suffuse this novel make it one of the most moving and remarkable novels I’ve ever read.”

Margot Livesey

“Passionate, irreverent, utterly relevant Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk offers an unforgettable portrait of a reluctant hero. Ben Fountain writes like a man inspired and his razor sharp exploration of our contemporary ironies will break your heart.”

Madison Smartt Bell

“Ben Fountain’s Halftime is as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days—an extraordinary work that captures and releases the unquiet spirit of our age, and will probably be remembered as one of the important books of this decade.”

Barbara's Picks

“Fountain is the Pen/Hemingway Award winner of the bristly and satisfying Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, so I expect lots from this book.”

Pat Conroy

“Ben Fountain stormed to the front lines of American fiction when he published his astonishing...Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. His first novel will raise his stature and add to his splendid reputation. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is both hilarious and heartbreaking.”

Karl Marlantes

“[T]he Catch-22 of the Iraq War....Fountain applies the heat of his wicked sense of humor while you face the truth of who we have become. Live one day inside Billy Lynn’s head and you’ll never again see our soldiers or America in the same way.”

Malcolm Gladwell

“So much of Fountain’s work...reads with an easy grace.... [S]ometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 82 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read fast. Really fast. Very few books slow me down. This book brought me to a standstill--and sent me back to read again. It knit the realities of combat to the realities of American civilian life. And with the same stitches, it bound the absurd fantasies of both experiences. It is no wonder that civilians who experience combat experience nothing the same way ever again. This slice of life was a story intricately spun and made into an uncomfortable but irresistible jacket. Thank you.
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
This book is as good as the best reviews say it is. It's very moving and sad and insightful and revealing. What happens to the young, impressionable men we send to war is something we can't comprehend without the experience ourselves. This story helps reveal a lot about them and also a lot about ourselves and our responses to them. And most of it happens during one professional football game at Cowboys stadium. What a clever way to tell their story. I loved this book.
RobertDowns More than 1 year ago
Having a somewhat loose connection to the military lifestyle, I felt an instant connection to this book that goes deeper than a cursory glance just across the surface. It made BILLY LYNN’s LONG HALFTIME WALK real to me, yet I did have trouble initially getting into the story, because it’s told as much through flashbacks, bouncing in time from the present to the past, that I struggled initially with the author’s choice of storytelling. But once I caught on, I dove into the water headfirst, and I didn’t bother coming up for air. Sure, there are satirical elements to the story, and it presents a world that’s not all sugarplums and candy canes and apple pies, but it’s the world we currently live in, if not slightly exaggerated. And for me, that was most of the appeal of the novel. I loved the direct line of sight into the eyes of a soldier, a grunt and a squad that was suddenly blown up bigger than an atomic bomb because of the media attention, the Jumbotron, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and the Victory Tour. It’s a study in American excess, and it further cements the great American divide between the haves and the have nots. This novel is at times powerful, heartbreaking, funny, sad, but overall it’s a richly written piece of fiction that made me pause and reflect, if even just for a minute, at the direction our country has taken. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dark satire of war and the selling of war.
prenoun More than 1 year ago
Not so much a novel of the Iraq War as a novel of soldiers attempting to understand the country they've enlisted to protect. There are comparisons drawn between Americans' commitment to their pastimes and their disinterest in the world around them, and Fountain's book, while making no real statements about the war, is happy to engage this larger, slower target. Humorous and touchingly written, Fountain' characters are believable and vivid, and surely they're the reason this novel made the Book Award shortlist. It didn't win, but as an effort to map a post-9/11 America, and the war we refused to examine, Bill Lynn wholly succeeds.
SharonfromCO More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing anti-war book that embodies a certain essence of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. It took me a few false starts to get the rhythm of this story of class, race, and gender among many other things. Thought provoking and sadly funny--do not give up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took awhile to get a feel for storyline, but thank God, I didn't give up. A terrific first novel! Should be in line for the National Book Award!
Lance_Charnes More than 1 year ago
It's 2007 or 2008, and the bloom is well off the Iraq War rose when news footage of a confused squad-level engagement vaults the surviving members of Bravo Squad into national celebrity. The Bush Administration trots them around swing states on a two-week "Victory Tour." The last stop is Dallas and an appearance at the Cowboys' orgiastic Thanksgiving Day game. This is where we meet Bravo, through the confused and overwhelmed eyes of 19-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn. The story of that day and all that led Billy and his Army comrades to it is told not through straightforward narrative but via a tour de force of near-stream-of-consciousness word purge, a swirl of hopes, dreams, fears, bewilderment, anger, disgust, horniness and loneliness. Billy, a native of hardscrabble East Texas, is exactly what you'd expect of a young man in his position: now a teenager, next a prematurely aged man, seeking guidance and strength from anyone who happens to be a few years older or even marginally wiser. He reveres his squad leader, SSGT Dime, while wondering whether the good sergeant really knows what he's doing; he bitterly misses "Shroom," a fellow squaddie and casualty of the firefight, who seemed to have all the answers, even if there weren't questions for them. In between, Billy does the things young men do after learning about mortality: he gets drunk, endures hangovers, sticks like Velcro to the now-men who shared his experience, acts out, and tries to cure a festering case of virginity. Fountain nails Billy's voice. So too does he nail the rest of Bravo, a modern-day grab bag of country and ghetto boys of all colors whose only common trait is that infantry duty in Iraq is better than any options available to them back home. They brag, swear, give each other merciless grief, say inappropriate things about and to women of all ages, fight and get stoned and cry when it all gets too much. I've met these guys; I watched them on their in-theater R&R in Qatar, rescued a few of them from the clutches of the USO, took them to dinner and sightseeing. Fountain got them mostly right, a great trick for someone who wasn't one of them. The plot? It isn't much -- Bravo stumbles from one encounter to another with an America that's become surreal to them. The superabundance of food, of stuff, of money, contrasts glaringly with their Spartan existence downrange. There's also a superabundance of need -- for reassurance (the repeated, childlike pleas: "Are we winning?" "Is it getting better?"), for hope, for validation -- that the people the Bravos meet turn to the soldiers to fill, and which the Bravos (who have their own glaring needs) can't begin to address. They also encounter profound cluelessness about the war among the civilians, the idea that it's a computer game or the action movie that the Bravos' Hollywood agent keeps trying to piece together. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" might be the first great Iraq War novel. It's a war story in which no shots are fired in anger; indeed, the war is many thousands of miles away in physical space, and on another planet in the mental space of most of the characters who populate this novel. Yet it says so much about the war, the men and women who fought in it, and the country that sent them there. It could in many ways be "The Best Years of Our Lives" for a new generation. If you're a True Believer in the Iraq War, you'll find plenty to hate here, but everyone else ought to get something from this novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've heard wisdom is knowing you know nothing. I'm feeling wiser after reading Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." To read this book is to enter a virtual reality world of a young soldier's experience with the civilian world after the rawest of wartime experiences. It's a surreal place where every sensation and thought is multiplied in intensity and then questioned for validity. I would put this on the "must read" list for: - anyone who has ever said "I know how you feel" - anyone who has counselled someone on enlisting in the military - every high school student - anyone affected by the politics of war - anyone who has been touched by war and terrorism, even if peripherally I'm not saying the book will change views. But I think it will make us more aware of the impact of those views.
bayareagirl More than 1 year ago
Creates the real aggression of war and juxtaposes it with the pretend aggression of football. The Bravo company are heroes, but not in the expected way. Dialogue perfect, humor and heart , all elevate this books to one of the best.  Reminds me of The Things They Carried, and Catch -22 in its exposure of the reality of war. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the saddest books to make you laugh, and it also manages to be thought provoking at the same time. This novel earns the right to be compared with a classis novel like "Catch 22".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Some of the descriptive phrases are so powerful that you are transported into the storyline. I will read this book again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is not easily characterized. It gives an insight into the thoughts of those service members we consider heroes, as well as those who are left at home. This book should become a statement for our times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We read this book for our book club. It made for an interesting discussion on the disconnect between the soldiers and the American public
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did you read my bio?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tallpaw Mudpaw Riverpaw Dawnbolt Dustwind!!" She cheered then she touched noses with Tallpaw((sorry if i got the names wrong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
WinterSong cheered.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She touched noses with Mudpaw. ((If they don't show up in a few days, hm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you once again
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Yes, there aare moments were you have to suspend your disbelief and women characters lack depth, but the quality of the writing is outstanding.
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