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The Battle Back Home: Kate Sidley Reviews Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

By Kate Sidley for The Sunday Times

Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been dubbed “the Catch-22 of the Iraq War”, but not a shot is fired within its pages.

A finalist for the US’s 2012 National Book Award, it’s an extraordinary book that takes on not the military experience so much as the society that produces it – in this case, Bush-era America.

Small-town Texan Billy Lynn, 19, and his mates from Bravo company find themselves overnight heroes when their bravery in a fierce firefight in Iraq is filmed by an embedded Fox News crew. The video goes viral, and they are sent back to the US on a two-week nationwide victory tour, where they are “passed around like everyone’s favourite bong”.

The book takes place during the course of Thanksgiving at the Dallas Cowboys stadium in “the sheltering womb of all things American – football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus 300 million well-wishing fellow citizens”.

Everyone wants a piece of the young men: a movie producer; the rich, brash Bush-loving owner of the Cowboys; the lithe and luscious cheerleaders; the comfortable American population who applaud and cheer when they pass.

It’s a searing and sometimes enormously entertaining look at war and the huge disconnect between the soldiers who fight the battles and the society that sends them there. “They all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs . They’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14800 a year.” In a rather mortifying set piece, the soldiers find themselves playing a part of the half-time fanfare alongside Destiny’s Child. There’s the distinct impression that they’d rather be on the battlefield.

Billy is a hero of the times, an oddly insightful everyman, whose commitment is to his band of brothers and to the chain of command, rather than to ideology. If he and his fellow Bravos aren’t the greatest generation, they are, one character observes, “surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation”.

Fountain’s prose is exhilarating, ironic and finely observed. He writes some totally brilliant zingy sentences (one or two overreach themselves, but for the most part they hit the mark marvellously). Don’t be surprised to find yourself reading delightful riffs on football, cheerleading and movie-making out loud.

Interestingly, it’s an almost bloodless war novel. Okay, there’s a bit of violence. There’s a vicious rumble with some roadie thugs when our guys let off steam after the rather humiliating half-time extravaganza. And another violent incident with drunken preppy boys in the stands at the game. In fact, there’s a fair amount of pushing and shoving – as Billy observes about football: “the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other” – but not with an actual enemy. Many of the classic books of war – think Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead – are remembered for their vivid scenes of combat. This book may be scant on military action but will be remembered for its vivid portrayal of the men who fight the battles on behalf of the folks back home. And the yawning gap between them.

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