Chat with Ben Fountain
Ben Fountain will join our Book of the Month discussion via Skype at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 16. To attend the event, which will be in Tribune Tower, email email@example.com by Aug. 10. Space is limited and will be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.
When we meet the Billy Lynn of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, he's a hungover grunt who's just downed five Jack and Cokes from the minibar of a Hummer limo, one of a half-dozen or so guys from Bravo squad. The squad is on a U.S. victory tour after its heroic deeds in an Iraq firefight were caught on camera by a Fox News crew. As Bravo heads to Cowboys Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day game, with a movie producer in tow, Billy's brain buzzes with the words from the congratulatory crowd of strangers who mobbed him earlier in a hotel lobby: "terrRist, freedom, evil, nina leven, nina levin, nina levin, troops, currj, support, sacrifice, Bush, values, God."
Fountain's words, ringing through Billy's ears, float in a typographical cloud on page two, setting up the themes that define "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" — and in many ways, define the American experience of the Iraq War.
The novel tells the story of a single day spent at Cowboys Stadium, capturing the mix of excitement and boredom, anxiety and absurdity, that goes along with highly produced big events. Reviews have compared the book to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" — just as Karl Marlantes' blurb on the book jacket does — and Heller's biting wartime humor is indeed woven into the book's DNA.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is, of course, also Billy Lynn's story, that of a likable 19-year-old kid who wound up in Iraq after bashing up a car belonging to a guy who broke his sister's heart. A judge gave Billy a choice: Go to jail or go to war. Now the juvenile delinquent is back home as hero, pestered throughout the book by a throbbing headache.
It's a headache exacerbated by the tension of meeting hundreds of Americans who seem so frustratingly naive to Billy, who has truly seen what war is; and yet, it's clear that while Billy's experiences have given him special wisdom, he is hopelessly green in understanding just how the American way works for the rich and powerful. And that headache of Billy's? He keeps asking, but he can't get an Advil to save his life.
Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.
Next week: A Q&A with Ben Fountain, author of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
→ "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is marinated in politics; how did your own personal political viewpoints affect your interpretation of the book? How well does this book capture the spirit of these times? Of this war?
→Why do you think Ben Fountain set the book at a Dallas Cowboys football game?
→The book has frequently been compared to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"; what do you think about that? What role does humor play in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"?
→Fountain's pop-and-sizzle language lends the book a particularly aural quality. How did that affect your reading experience? Did it enhance or detract?
→Was Norm just another character or a stand-in for a larger point? What was he about?