BillyBilly Lynn is a young American soldier, a member of Bravo Company. They’ve been on a victory tour of the United States after being declared heroes for their part in the war in Iraq. The tour culminates in the glorious spectacle of the Thanksgiving Day football game and its famed halftime show, where the eight members of Bravo will be the guests of honour. Accompanying them is movie producer Albert Ratner, who is trying to secure a deal to make a movie out of the team’s heroic firefight.

All the guys of Bravo really want to do is realise their dream of meeting the lovely Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders and maybe even Destiny’s Child, the halftime show’s star performers, before they get sent back to Iraq for their next tour of duty.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an irreverent, satirical look at warfare and America. Ben Fountain’s sentences are incisive, cutting through the bullshit like a razor. Personally, I like my war stories satirical (Catch-22 is a favourite). Satire shouldn’t mean soulless though. And that’s where Fountain shines; he never lets his linguistic ingenuity or a political message get in the way of the experiences of Billy and the rest of Bravo.

Fountain doesn’t make sport of the blood brother bond of soldiers. There’s no dogmatic declaration that the war in Iraq is wrong. It’s the overall bloated spectacle of the United States of America that is pilloried – the rabid fans fawning all over Bravo Company, congratulating them for what they did in Iraq, for ‘paying them back for nina leven’. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is also an astute satire of Hollywood and high finance. As Albert tries to ink a movie deal for Bravo it becomes apparent that no studio will commit until a star commits, no star until a studio – ‘The paradox is so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify’, lovingly referencing Catch-22, Billy Lynn’s’ spiritual forebear.

Part of what’s great about Billy is he didn’t choose to become a soldier. He isn’t your average troubled youth turning to the army when there’s nothing else or an unquestioning patriot. Billy is philosophical; he’s concerned by ideas about fate, albeit in a fittingly slangy voice,

The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of to the right. Random.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk flits between Iraq, earlier stops on the victory tour, the events that led to Billy becoming a soldier, and Billy visiting his family, all swirling around the climax of Bravo’s participation in the halftime show. Incidentally, when Destiny’s Child sing in the halftime show Fountain prints the ridiculously daft lyrics in black and white on the page, ‘Big man can’t you handle this good love I’m offerin’ you?’, ‘You get yours and leave me hangin’ like a prepubescent’. It’s brilliant social commentary. The halftime show is discussed as if it is the apex of America’s cultural and social expression, then is revealed to be completely ludicrous. And while it is a sad state of affairs, in Fountain’s hands it remains funny. His keen critical eye also means he gets away with the largely plotless meandering, repetition of themes, philosophical exploration and a fascination with paradox, while remaining constantly interesting and relevant. It may seem strange to compare the two but it leapt into my head, it’s a much more successful attempt than Charles Yu’s science fiction take on similar structural ideas.

Fountain’s novel is often sad, biting and savage. Do the soldiers know they’re being used? ‘Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ It’s ultimately an indictment of war yet, for the most part, it’s balanced, and the more powerful for it. ‘All that ever got talked about was how war was supposed to fuck you up, true enough but maybe not the whole truth.’

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