Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Recommended read - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

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Right now we're loving: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.

The premise, in 25 words or less: A bemused 19-year-old Texan soldier and his squad are sent on a celebrity tour of America after they're filmed kicking ass in an Iraq firefight.

You'll love it if you liked: Generation Kill, Jarhead, voice-of-disaffected-American-youth novels such as Generation X and The Catcher in the Rye, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Author's credentials: Ben Fountain quit his job as a lawyer in Dallas so he could pursue an urge to write. That was 1988. Twenty-four years later he's in his early fifties and has published his first novel, after having earned literary cred writing short stories.

The guts of the book: Billy Lynn and seven fellow soldiers of Bravo squad have been plucked from obscurity and the sands of Iraq and sent on a two-week "Victory Tour" of the US, after a Fox News crew filmed them overcoming an insurgent attack.

Catapulted into national hero status, Billy discovers everyone wants him for a poster boy, from President Bush to a Hollywood producer, to every second rich conservative in Texas, to the megalomaniac owner of the Dallas Cowboys, to an evangelical preacher, to the anti-war lobby, to a pneumatic Cowgirls cheerleader.

Billy, meanwhile, is trying to get his head around the death of a revered sergeant in the firefight, wondering where all the money is coming from to finance war, corporate America and football, and hoping to get a shot at losing his virginity before he's shipped back to Iraq in a couple of days. The action takes place in a single day, as the squad is paraded around a Dallas stadium on the occasion of a big football game, with flashbacks to Billy's earlier experiences.

Why you should read it: I initially wondered why we needed a fictional book about the Iraq war when there are plenty of revealing factual accounts of the conflict, written by young soldiers and journalists.

But then I was socked in the gob by Fountain's imaginative and punchy writing style: "In heat conditions his face lit up in swirling lava-lamp blobs, and he didn't so much perspire as secrete, producing an oily substance that covered his body like a slick of stale pickle juice."

Fountain takes a different tack from the accumulation of memoirs, by focusing on the American public's warped perception of the war. Bemused Billy zones out when people accost him and yabber about the war, hearing instead the predictable chant of "terrRist, nina leven, nina leven, nina leven, currj, Eye-rack, Eaaaar-rock, Sod'm, soooh-preeeeme sacrifice, dih-mock-cruh-see, double y'im dees..." (That last one took me a while.)

It's a riotous and entertaining story that hurtles to a grand climax, and brings in even Beyoncé Knowles for a shot of extra firepower, but it raises serious questions: Who's the bigger fool - the American public who kid themselves that the war makes them safer, or the teenage schmuck who volunteers (albeit under duress) to risk his life fighting it for $15,000 a year. And what constitutes real life: the battle for survival in Iraq, or the everyday excess of American consumers and their comparatively shallow concerns?

But nothing's perfect right? Actually, it comes pretty close, though if I'm being picky I'd say there's nothing particularly surprising or challenging in the themes of the book, if you've seen Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 911, or read one or two Iraq/Afghanistan war memoirs that paint the bulk of the US soldiers as poor and uneducated young RPG fodder from small-town America.

The likeable Billy is drawn with complexity and a conscience, while still being believable as a product of his age, albeit with the kind of prodigious talent for bayonet-sharp observations that heroes in novels are often afflicted with. However, his fellow soldiers could have been popped out of the pages of Generation Kill, and the sentiments of the everyday American folk echo those canvassed long ago in Fahrenheit 911.
But, as I say, I'm being picky. Don't let that stop you reading it.

The buzz: Karl Marlantes, author of New York Times bestseller Matterhorn: A Novel About The Vietnam War, has called it the "Catch-22 of the Iraq War". "Instead of skewering the military, however, it skewers the society responsible for sending it to war."

Trivia: There's a homage to Catch-22 in the book, when the soldiers learn that actress Hillary Swank is keen to star in a movie based on their Iraq experiences. She won't sign until investors commit, but investors won't commit until she signs.
"The Bravos emit an appreciative ahh-hhh. The paradox is so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify. 'That's kind of f***ed,' says Crack."

Memorable line: "Counting poor dead Shroom and the grievously wounded Lake there are two Silver Stars and eight Bronze among them, all ten of which defy coherent explation. 'What were you thinking during the battle?' the pretty reporter in Tulsa asked, and Billy tried. God knows he tried, he never stops trying, but it keeps slipping and sliding, corkscrewing away, the thing of it, the it, the ineffable whatever."

Details: Published by Allen & Unwin/Canongate. $36.99.

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