Category first novels



Billy Lynn’s LongHalftime Walk

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

Last Night in Montreal 0


by Emily St. John Mandel

I just finished a really wonderful first novel.  I first checked it out of the library, but since I was so entranced by the writing and the characters, I am heading out to the bookstore today to buy a copy.  I want it to be on my bookshelves, along with all those other books that just looking at (whether or not I reread them) make me glad to be a reader.

It’s called Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel and I am at a loss as to how to describe this novel concretely in order to give you a sense of the story. When Lilia—who has a history of never staying in any one place for more than a few months—abruptly leaves Eli without any explanation, he determines that he’s going to find her.  Gradually, through the author’s adroit use of flashbacks, the reader comes to understand Lilia’s compulsion to flee, to always be going somewhere other than where she is. 

The story is important (and the ending is breathtaking), but it’s not—to me—the most important aspect of Mandel’s novel. That would be the characters and the writing.  I found the characters to be wholly alive, in all their complexity, bad choices, general quirkiness, and faulty decisions.  I loved how Mandel wove in the subject of Eli’s long unfinished doctoral dissertation (on dead and dying languages) into conversations or musings that illuminated the various characters.  The novel is about loss, obsession, how we never quite escape from our childhood experiences, and love.

And the writing simply blew me away.  Here’s a rather long quotation from the beginning of chapter three, when Eli is falling into despair about Lilia’s absence from his life:

The problem, Eli used to think before he met her, was that he’d never suffered except insofar as everyone does: the stalled trains, the alarm clocks that don’t ring when they’re supposed to, the agony of being surrounded by other people who all give the impression of being way more prolific and considerably more talented than you are, wet socks in the winter, being alone in any season, the chronic condition of being misunderstood, zippers that break at awkward moments, being unheard and then having to repeat yourself embarrassingly in front of girls you’re trying to impress, trying to impress girls and failing, girls who can be seduced but remain unimpressible, girls who can’t be seduced and/or turn out to have boyfriends in the morning, girls, being alone, paper grocery bags with falling-out bottoms, waiting in line at the post office for a half hour and then being snapped at because you don’t have the right customs declaration forms to send the birthday gift to your perpetually traveling brother, waiting in line anywhere, phone calls from a disapproving mother who doesn’t understand, the crowd of overeducated friends who understand too much and can’t resist bringing up long-dead philosophers and/or quantum physics over an otherwise perfectly civilized morning coffee, girls, an overall lack of direction and meaning as evidenced in your inability to either finish the thesis, abandon the current thesis and write a different thesis altogether, finish the different thesis, or heroically give up the whole thing completely and go to work at a gas station somewhere upstate, stepping in things on the sidewalk, lost buttons, most kinds of rain, standing in line at the grocery store behind the lady who just knows there’s a coupon in here somewhere, girls, and the sense that all of this adds up to a life that’s ultimately pretty shallow and doesn’t really mean that much, particularly in comparison to his older brother saving children in Africa.

Goodness, what a great sentence.  I can just see Mandel sitting at a desk or coffee shop table writing out this list and the picture made me smile.

Try this novel out and let me know what you think.