Friday, June 7, 2013

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

A tightly coiled comic allegory about Pro Football, Hollywood maneuvering, and the Iraq War

Dexter Checks Out Ben Fountain's Books*
     Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award – the prize that spotlights excellent writers on the cusp of prominence, and was nominated for the National Book Award.  Such accolades don’t
always guarantee quality, but in this instance they do.  The other heartening fact is that, although he’s been writing for decades, this is Ben Fountain’s first published novel and he’s in his mid-fifties.  It was more than worth the wait.

Dallas Cowboys Game
     Billy Lynn is a nineteen-year-old Iraqi War hero, who’s been on a whirlwind U.S. tour with the rest of the Bravo Squad after a short battle captured on Fox news and various other networks.  Their last stop is a 2004 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game, where they will be part of the half-time show alongside headliners Destiny’s Child.  The plot revolves around whether a Hollywood movie version of the squad’s battle success will be optioned.  However, that’s secondary to the classical unity of the setting, namely that the story primarily takes place, except for a couple of flashbacks, at Texas Stadium from just before the game through a post-game fight in the parking lot.  

     Fountain captures the first inklings of doubt by the American public after the rush to war.  That range and variation of emotions is even greater in Texas, where everything is bigger.  Building upon intense detail and ‘you are there’ immediacy in the manner of Tom Wolfe, Fountain’s brand of realism is allegorical, drawing a parallel between the various strata of Cowboys’ fans and American society.  There
The War in Iraq
are a couple of chestnuts – practically clichés – which Fountain spins anew, such as the very rich can get (almost) anything they want, and that fighting men – whether soldiers, football players, or corporate executives, stick together.  One irony is that, by the end, Billy is almost looking forward to returning to Iraq where he might be safer.  

     Fountain uses a third person limited omniscient point of view.  The reader is fully connected to Billy through his feelings and memories, but Billy doesn’t tell the story.  Fountain’s sensibility merges with Billy’s so that the author can make the bigger points that the character would be unable to articulate if he were narrating the story.  This is a practice that Don DeLillo (and earlier Thomas Pynchon) mastered and Billy Lynn sometimes feels like the literary heir to Gary, the protagonist of End Zone, a 1972 novel that equates college football with the nuclear arms race.  Actually, Henry James probably originated this practice.  Fountain doesn’t get as abstract as DeLillo on occasion and he doesn’t mix literary genres in the manner of Pychon and because of that he’ll probably end up with a more commercially successful work.  His laidback sense of humor and keenly sharp dialogue (and narrative description that sometimes feels like dialogue) recall Mark Twain. His folksy, glistening portrait of Norm Oglesby, Cowboys’ owner and the book’s villain, is a real gem, especially for those who might wonder if it’s based on Jerry Jones.

*original photo by Ron Heflin

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