Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

  • Ben Fountain
  • Ecco
  • 320 pp.

An Army platoon, plucked from Iraq for a media tour after video of a heroic rescue goes public, deals with the reality of America in a time of war and insecurity.

Reviewed by Bob Gibson

Billy Lynn is riding life’s razor’s edge. He’s 19 years old and famous, in a fleeting, 24-hour news cycle kind of way. Chasing hangovers with Jack and Cokes, Billy and his friends fill a stretch limo on their way to a Dallas Cowboys game. They are to be feted as heroes, welcomed as VIPs into the inner circle of the well-heeled, and guaranteed a personal meeting with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. If that’s not enough, a big-name Hollywood producer is in the limo, talking up a movie deal that he hints will make them all rich.

There is a downside to this American dream. Billy and his buddies are the remnants of an Army platoon on temporary reprieve from the fighting in Iraq. They have been plucked out of Iraq mid-tour thanks to footage shot by an embedded Fox News camera that showed the platoon riding in cinematic glory to rescue ambushed comrades. Their two-week stateside media blitz is cresting at Texas Stadium on this chilly Thanksgiving game day. Waiting on the other side of the limo ride and cheerleaders and movie deals is a plane trip right back to Baghdad.

In this grimly comic and vividly rendered novel about the war in Iraq, Ben Fountain chooses to all but leave out both the war and Iraq. He focuses instead on the Bravo team as it romps, struggles and sometimes fights its way through the crowded concourses, back tunnels and secret chambers of the aging shrine to “America’s team.” What happened on the banks of the Al-Ansakar Canal in Iraq is treated as an aside. The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is about America in a time of war and insecurity, about the pursuit of dreams both sweet and absurd, about how we define our heroes.

Bravo is accosted everywhere they turn, in the stands and in the inner sanctums of the privileged. People burn for what the soldiers represent, people who, Billy notices, “lose it when they enter his personal space … Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.”

Fountain occasionally sprays a page with words and phrases that Bravo hears over and over, some written phonetically in the Texas drawl and burr: “wore on terrR,” “nina leven,” “double y’im dees,” “currj,” “freedom.”

To Billy, his fellow Americans “are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin towards which war inclines.”

Bravo’s pursuit of the dazzling treasure of a movie deal — and for Billy a handful of Advil, scarcer in this realm than gold — tests them again and again with dangers and temptations that escalate as the day wears on.

The characters in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are searingly good. The profane, often juvenile Bravos are as colorful as their nicknames — A-bort, Mango, Crack, Day, Load, Sucks. We meet wise Shroom through flashbacks, Shroom who died as Billy came to his rescue, gunning down the insurgents who had tried to drag the wounded man away. Sergeant Dime is the platoon’s dark lord and protector. There is an evil king in this palace — Norm Oglesby, owner of the Cowboys — and Dime is the only one strong enough and mean enough to take him on.

But Billy is bearer of the ring, the prince of this tale. He is not wholly innocent but he has some kind of purity of soul, and a depth that all the others but Dime lack.

And he finds his princess in the form of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, who improbably but entirely wonderfully falls for him when they slip behind a curtain at a staged meeting of Bravo and the cheerleaders. While the other cheerleaders, “bodies firm as steel-belted radials,” conduct a calculated act with the soldiers, something real flares to life between angelic, strawberry-blond Faison and Billy. Pondering how this could have happened, she concludes that “I think God wanted us to meet today.” The description of their fully-clothed coupling is as erotic as anything I’ve read in recent memory.

“‘This is crazy,’ she whispers when they come up for air. ‘I could get kicked off the squad for this.’ With that they fall on each other again, and for as long as it lasts Billy wants nothing more.”

Following a hilarious press conference and the swarming of the cheerleaders, Bravo descends through the levels of the stadium until they reach the lair of the heroes worshipped by the crowd above. Crossing the threshold of the locker room, armed with nothing more than autograph pens and souvenir footballs, the soldiers encounter the Cowboys in the flesh, “throwbacks to some lost prehistoric age when humans the size of Clydesdales roamed the earth.” These gladiators sport “beer-keg heads and redwood necks and arms packing softball-sized bulges, plus something not quite right about their faces, their eyes too close or too far apart, a thumb-mashed puttiness to cheekbone and nose.”

Billy finds himself being grilled about the details of lethal combat by a clutch of defensive backs, men “coiled, cool, broad through the shoulders and slim through the hips.” They probe him about the weapons he carries, what it’s like to kill a man, hungering for the most prurient detail. During the exchange, he explains that a high-velocity round from an M-4 rifle passes right through an enemy’s body.

“‘But they ain’t dead.’ ‘Not with a body shot. That’s why we aim for the face.’ The players suck in their breath. ‘Unh,’ someone murmurs, as if biting into something juicy and sweet.”

Before Bravo clears out of the locker room, Billy is summoned back to these men, who “stand there with a stillness that suggests momentous events.” Their leader, Octavian Spurgeon, has a request. The players want to “ride wit y’all for a week, couple weeks” in order to do something “[e]xtreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that?”

Billy tells them that it doesn’t actually work like that. If they want to help, they could join the Army.

“The players snort, mutter, cast pitying glances at him.” Then they laugh, “little squeals and pitying yips escape their mouths” as Octavian turns his back on Billy in dismissal. “Go on now. Yo’ boy over there callin’ you.”

Bravo is then unleashed onto the Astroturf of Texas Stadium, like a band of Christians prodded out onto the floor of the Roman Coliseum. They are ordered to work for their honors by taking part in the half-time extravaganza, marching out and standing at attention as sleet stings their faces. Billy stands stock still as first male dancers and then Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child sidekicks pulse around him, “a fulmination of animal heat roaring at his side.”

The tension of the day mounts. Billy is crazy for Faison. Her image fills the Jumbotron screen. They call each other on their cell phones, snatch a few moments on the sideline. “You don’t even know how good you are, do you?” Faison tells him. “That makes it even better!” Meanwhile one of Billy’s sisters is pressuring him to go AWOL, the movie deal sputters, Sergeant Dime crosses a line with the Cowboys owner and the world of Bravo hits the spin cycle.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq, it’s not even the third quarter.

Bob Gibson is a fiction writer and former newspaper reporter, magazine writer and editor. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Preservation, GW Review, and The Washington Book Review.

comments powered by Disqus