Wednesday, November 28, 2012

book review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The backstory: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain's first novel, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. It was also the 2013 runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: Set on Thanksgiving Day 2004, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk takes place at the Dallas Cowboys annual Thanksgiving Day game. Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old member of Bravo Company, is our window into the bizarre festivities. Here, the young men of Bravo Company, famous for winning a filmed fight with insurgents, are on a "victory tour" before returning to Iraq. The Cowboys game, where they participate in the halftime festivities with Destiny's Child, is their final stop.

My thoughts: The premise of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a fascinating one, and I admit I had rather high expectations going in, but at the end of the novel, I found myself saying, "that's it?" That isn't to say Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a bad book; it's a good book, but I wish it would have been a great book.

One of the novel's weaknesses was having Billy Lynn narrate the entire novel. At times his observations were poignant and moving: "why, please, do they play the national anthem before games anyway? The Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, these are two privately owned, for-profit corporations, these their contractual employees taking the field. As well play the national anthem at the top of every commercial, before every board meeting, with every deposit and withdrawal you make at the bank!" Who better to deliver that diatribe than a nineteen-year-old small-town Texas virgin back home for a whirlwind 'victory' tour after an intense time in Iraq. He knows he's on his way right back to Iraq too. He has the right perspective.

The narration's weakness occurred in two ways, however. First, at times Fountain seemed to make Billy Lynn more omniscient and wise than he was in most parts. Second, the thoughts of a 19-year-old about the Iraq War in 2004 already seem dated. They're certainly not bad thoughts, but they're not terribly new. For me, this novel shined brightest when Fountain took over. I think this novel would felt more modern and held greater depth if Fountain opted for either a true omniscient narrator or told the story in multiple voices. Billy Lynn is a great window into that world, but I wish he weren't the only one in this novel.

I'm generally a fan of slow, contemplative novels, but the action (or lack thereof) in this novel really dragged. The combination of the pace with Billy Lynn's intelligent but redundant observations hindered the momentum. The novel had the most momentum during the flashbacks, both to war and other events. The flashback of Billy Lynn's brief time with his family during the tour was the most moving of the novel. The contrast of how the soldiers speak to one another and how people expect them to act was interesting, but it soon grew redundant.

At the center of what I wished were better in this novel was Billy Lynn as a character. At times he was a believable 19-year-old soldier, but at other times, I felt Fountain more than Billy. Or rather, I felt Fountain trying a bit too hard with Billy. These chips in credibility pulled me away from the narrative. For one particular storyline, Billy's romance with the cheerleader, it felt forced, unreal and fell emotionally flat to me.

Despite these flaws, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk isn't a bad novel. I criticize it because in many ways it was so close to being a great novel. Fountain has a tremendous gift for language, but it wasn't enough to distract me from the novel's plot and character shortcomings.

Favorite passage:  "There was no such thing as perfection in this world, only moments of such extreme transparency that you forgot yourself, a holy mercy if there ever was one."

The verdict: While I appreciate what Ben Fountain tries to do here, overall the novel felt one-note to me. It took more than 300 pages to cover a few hours, albeit with flashbacks, but the flashbacks were the most enlightening and interesting parts.The events at the Cowboys game soon become dull and feel unnecessarily drawn out. The writing and ideas are top notch, but there's not much new here. If you're one who has not contemplated the hypocrisy of war, capitalism, Hollywood and professional sports, this novel will likely read like a revelation. If, however, you're well-versed in the shortcomings and hypocrisies of the Iraq War, you may find yourself wishing for more.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2012
Source: publisher

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  1. I abandoned this last week and until your review I'd only seen glowing praise. I agree with much of what you say. I abandoned it because I found it emotionally flat and also because I didn't enjoy seeing things from Billy's perspective - he was annoying and the language was so harsh. I agree that the writing was good and will try Fountain's next book, but I am pleased to see I'm not the only one falling over to rave about this book.

  2. I adore books that take place on Thanksgiving. I also adore contemplative reads but the pace thing...that would bug me.

  3. I'm afraid I have this thing against the Cowboys. Now if it was set during a Packers game, I'd probably be all over it. ;-)

    Okay, that's not true. I'm not a fan of war novels, or overly contemplative ones. Which means I won't be reading this one. Sorry, Billy.

  4. Hmm, that's disappointing. I was hoping this would be great as well. Though I'm still intrigued by what you said are the good parts and your 4/5 rating!

  5. I received an unsolicited copy of this one (presumably because I live in Dallas...that's where Fountain is from and obviously where this one is set). But meh. I haven't gotten past the first page. Something keeps screaming to me that it's gonna be cheesy! Most reviews to the contrary, I'm still not sold.


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