I don't read a lot of contemporary war novels, that is, books about wars that happened during my lifetime, and I hesitated a long time before picking up Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I guess I'm always just a little worried about the point of view I'm going to encounter and how that's going to affect my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I'm not sure what it was exactly that pushed me over the line and persuaded me to give it a try, but I'm glad I did.
The book takes place over the course of one very long day. The men of Bravo squad, recently returned to the United States after their heroic acts in battle in Iraq were captured by an embedded journalist, are spending the day at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are at the tail end of a long "victory tour" across the country- mostly in swing states, as it happens- and they are all wiped and worn out. They've been feted and fussed over and Hollywood wants to tell their story. Word has it Hilary Swank wants to star. Now, though, they've got one day to get through before the next phase of their journey- not back home, but back to war.
The reader spends the day in the head of Billy Lynn, a private at the center of the action that went down, the action for which they're famous. Other members of the squad come in and out of the story, especially Dime, their commanding officer, an antiauthoritarian authority figure who provides a backbone of cynicism and skepticism but has his mens' love and loyalty absolutely. These guys are a unit, truly; whatever threatens one, threatens all, and as the day unfolds the men learn who is and is not truly on their side. In the mean time, they go through their day; they meet Cowboys honchos, flirt with cheerleaders and receive, not always happily, adoration, worship and appreciation for their service.
Tension builds slowly as we traverse Billy's memories, his family and his time in the service. The most important day of the story and maybe Billy's life, the day of the battle, plays like music in the background as the men negotiate the mundane events of this day at the stadium. Everything leads up to the halftime show, when the football field becomes another kind of battlefield for these men whose pent up stress and exhaustion threaten to overwhelm them.
The book is so completely engrossing that sometimes I forgot I wasn't reading about real people. I read it quickly; often the narrative slips into a sort of stream of consciousness but one that still kept me glued to the book. I think Ben Fountain has written a very brave and difficult book that takes a hard look at the cost of war both for our country and for the men and women tasked with fighting it. It undercuts a lot of the blind obedience and herd-following that goes on in civilian culture with respect to attitudes about the military while showing a great deal of empathy and respect for the private struggles of the armed soldier. It reminds of the sections in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, the parts where we see a character's cynicism around attitudes about soldiers and veterans. It's a book whose implications and meanings I know I'll struggle with for a long time, and one that I'd highly recommend to every reader.