Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Funny, touching and thoughtful character driven story about troops on a PR 'Victory Tour' during the Iraq war and the society that sends them there.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 309 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Canongate
ISBN: 9780857864383

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In Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Billy and what is left of his Bravo troop colleagues are back from the war in Iraq following a brave firefight caught on camera by embedded journalists. The US army, keen to gain PR from the event has brought them back on an optimistically titled 'Victory Tour' despite the fact that they are all to be re-deployed the next week. The majority of the book takes place on the last day of this tour when Billy is in his home-state of Texas, where the Bush link makes it even more pro-war, as the boys are invited to attend that most American of PR events, the Thanksgiving football game at the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Accompanying the troop is a veteran Hollywood producer who has promised the soldiers that he can sell their story to a movie studio for mega-bucks. If only it were that simple.

Billy is a hugely sympathetic character that is superbly drawn. The book deals with the American obsessions of big business, sport, celebrity and movies, and some might add Middle East war to this list. The boys are like fish out of water in their celebrity at home and the PR image of the war has no relation to their experience of it. But while the book's general politics are broadly pro-troops / anti-war, this is not rammed home and the reader can pull together the subtleties of the situation. War is where these boys feel most at home, but that doesn't make them mindless thugs in any way. Certainly they are far removed from the worlds of Hollywood, Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and Destiny's Child who are performing the half time entertainment which makes for entertaining situations.

Billy in particular has gained much from his army experience. With a redneck background and a father who even before his strokes rendered him speechless, was never the father figure Billy needed, Billy only joined up to avoid jail, and yet in his fallen sargeant, Shroom, Billy has gained some direction and guidance in life.

For all the obvious contrasts between the worlds of entertainment and America's views of the war from home, these points are never laboured. Instead what we get is a character driven novel that is highly entertaining, often funny and ultimately moving yet at the same time saying important things about the culture and society that can send these young men half way around the world to fight a war.

While everyone makes great show of praising the troops, all they want to do is to meet the cheerleaders, and ideally Destiny's Child, and to find the next source of alcohol, although not necessarily in that order. They also want to make some money from the movie rights but the best the movie producer seems to be able to get them is Hilary Swank to play the part of one of the men.

It's not only a superbly entertaining book with a memorable central character, but it is also probably quite an important book that says a great deal about our age and ways of life without ever being preachy on the subject. Critically, it shows rather than tells which is always a sign of a very good book. And if you are nervous about the American Football content, don't be - it hardly gets a mention. It will probably change what you think when watch news footage of troops though - one of them might be Billy Lynn.

Our thanks to the kind people at Canongate for sending us this book.

You might also enjoy The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, although rather more awareness of US sport is required to get the best out of this book compared with Ben Fountain's book. Also very recommended for fans of character-driven books is In One Person by John Irving, although quite what the boys of Bravo company would make of Irving's book is another matter. You might also appreciate The Kilburn Social Club by Robert Hudson.

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