Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

Wow. Sometimes a book just knocks you for a loop when you're not expecting it. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of those books. I almost didn't read it because the early reviews I had seen, while immensely superlative, made me believe this was a book about soldiers at war. And while soldiers, and their war, play a big part in the book, at its heart this is a story about a young soldier confronting the realities of the world, his family, brotherhood, and love, all for the first time.

During the war in Iraq, the men of Bravo Squad engage in a fierce firefight with insurgents at Al-Ansakar Canal, and two men lose their lives. A Fox News reporter embedded with the squad catches the entire nearly four-minute battle and broadcasts it to the world, and the Bravo Squad are hailed as American heroes. They are immediately flown back to America, where for two weeks they are sent on a victory tour around the nation, meeting President Bush and other political figures, as well as celebrities and average American citizens, most of whom express their gratitude for the sacrifice the soldiers are making. Nineteen-year-old Texas native Billy Lynn was recognized for his heroic efforts, and a Hollywood producer is pursuing the possibility of turning the Bravo Squad's heroism into a movie. A significant portion of the book takes place when the soldiers will participate in the halftime show during the Thanksgiving NFL game at Texas Stadium. In just a few hours, Billy will struggle with what their actions during wartime really meant to the world, whether he wants to go back to Iraq (the squad is scheduled to return to serve out the remainder of their deployment), and how love and family motivate him. He'll also come face to face for the first time with the glibness of Hollywood people.

I felt that so much of this book was brilliantly told and utterly captivating. Billy is a fascinating character, as are some of his fellow soldiers, and the way Ben Fountain lets their story unfold is fantastic. This book emphasizes the realities of war and how it affects those involved, as well as those who watch from the sidelines, but it never proselytizes. When the book ended, I was surprised at how disappointed I was, because I wanted more of their story. I want to know what happens once the soldiers return to Iraq. But perhaps it's better to make up my own ending than be disappointed. All in all, I thought this was an outstanding and truly affecting book.

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