I’m trying to read all the National Book Awards finalists in the fiction category this year before the winner is announced (which doesn’t give me a lot of time, so I may not make it). I just finished the first one, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
It’s about a group of soldiers who were in a firefight in Iraq that was captured on tape by an embedded Fox News reporter. They’ve become “heroes” in the media, but their fucked-up real lives haven’t changed much. The book takes place on the last day of a “victory tour” they have been sent on by Army PR, shaking the hands of wealthy and famous people — right before being sent back to the war for another year. On this last day, they are to be part of the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game along with Destiny’s Child (the descriptions of the pop group — their inhuman cool, their bizarre way of walking, their alien demeanor — are some of my favorite in the book). “Bravo Company” (as they have been inaccurately labelled by the media) are also in the throes of negotiating a Hollywood film deal with a character who manages to be both shady and sincere-seeming at the same time (which strikes me as very true). And one of them, our POV dude, falls in love with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, who falls in love with him back. And so on. Did I say that their lives haven’t changed much? Despite all of the above, they still seem like fuckups to me, and to themselves. I think that’s one of the points.
There’s some really good stuff here, complicated by some overly literary stuff. The POV seems to be hovering within/on the shoulder/close to the consciousness of a 19-year-old grunt, the titular Billy Lynn, whose lack of education is a plot point, but the narrator comes up with some outrageously sophisticated whoppers of metaphors (football shoulderpads stacked like bodies in ancient Christian catacombs beneath Rome) that the grunt would never imagine. I know the narrator is not necessarily the very same voice as the POV character, but I’m used to the two being more close to one another, and the difference jars, until you get used to it.
On the plus side: this book features one of the funniest portrayals of what it might be like to feel a PTSD rage coming on (in the middle of that halftime show, with fireworks and marching bands and shuffling people on every side — the kinds of stimuli that scream “ambush” to a soldier) and choosing to tamp it down because, dude, that would be embarrassing.
I may write a longer blog post about this book after I’ve thought about it some more, or maybe after I’ve read all the rest of the finalists.
I did like it better than most literary books I’ve read lately. But I’ve hated most literary books I’ve read lately, so that’s not saying a lot. I’m not feeling it as a National Book Award winner. If it does win, I suspect that that will be at least partly because of Subject Matter rather than Literary Merit. The judges want to nod in the direction of something we should all be thinking about. And, yes, we should all be thinking about our veterans as they return from these wars. So I don’t blame the judges. These awards need to serve some kind of function, and I guess a political/civic function is more useful than their stated aim anyway. Right?
Speaking of: I guess I’ll read the other Iraq war one, The Yellow Birds, next.
Elsewhere on the web:
Everything is Political, an Interview with Ben Fountain (The Millions):
From the start — beginning with the first impulse for the story — it seemed that the book needed to have a particular attitude in the language, a hopefully headlong, borderline reckless mashup of high and low, ineffable and vulgar, etc. If it was going to happen, it had to happen at the level of the sentence and build from there. There was a sound, as much as anything, that the book needed to have, and that’s what I went after in the writing, trying to home in on the sound of it and find the words for it on the page. Usually I had to work it over and over to get it right, but that’s true of pretty much everything I do. Even the “simple” sentences seem to come hard. … more
Ellen Wernecke’s Review of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (The Onion AVClub):
Writer Ben Fountain was introduced to the world through a 2008 Malcolm Gladwell essay about artistic talent. In it, Gladwell questions the model of the young prodigy, juxtaposing Fountain—who wrote full-time for 18 years before the publication of his short-story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara—and wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer. But Gladwell’s questions about the ebb and flow of creativity won’t be settled by Fountain’s first novel, which is great fun until it gets bogged down in its own meaningfulness. … more