Ben Fountain ’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco, 2012) is a brilliantly conceived first novel that takes place over the course of one day. It’s the story of 19-year-old Billy Lynn, a member of Bravo Squad, a group of soldiers who, fresh from winning a firefight in Iraq that’s made them media darlings, are brought back to the U.S. for two weeks for a “victory tour” that’s intended to drum up support for the war. (Dime, their cynical sergeant, points out that they’re only being sent to the swing states.) They’re spending Thanksgiving Day at the Dallas Cowboys football game, and at halftime Bravo Squad is going to walk to the center of the football field and meet Beyoncé and the rest of Destiny’s Child. 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.
Here are two quotes that I’ll never forget:
…the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantage, and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of blood up its sleeve.
And, when Billy is meeting the crème de la crème of Texas society (and their trophy wives), he thinks:
Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter. It’s not that he’s jealous so much as profoundly terrified. Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that’s how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires. Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point