I believe in most cases, the easiest way to explain what you thought of a novel is to tell someone how you finished it. Was it a thriller that had you caught in twists and turns that kept you awake until you had discovered the truth? Were you enjoying it so much that you put off the ending due to an inability to let go of the story and it’s characters? Did you race through to the end so that you could be relieved of poor plot points or a disappointing conclusion? Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk had me travel the entire city loop unnecessarily, sitting on the train getting further and further away from my destination, so as to avoid moving from my seat and therefore interrupting the final chapter. For someone with such an inability to sit still as myself, this was a big deal.
Billy Lynn is an American soldier on leave from Iraq. His squad are bandied around the States on a so-called Victory Tour, having recently won an important battle in George W Bush’s war. We join them on the end of the tour, at a football game in Texas on Thanksgiving, 24 hours before they are deployed back to Iraq. But the deployment is not common knowledge: this is a time to focus on the heroes of the war on terror, not the realities, and thus Billy unwittingly becomes the centre of a discussion around the politics of the war and the country that instigated it.
Ben Fountain created a stunningly vulnerable and heartfelt character in Billy Lynn. Initially we are led to believe that Billy is just a ‘grunt’ in a squad of soldiers who are charged on testosterone, alcohol and violence, but it doesn’t take long for us to feel the load on Billy’s back. The death of his best friend ‘Shroom, the complicated relationship he has with his parents, the affection his sisters have for him and the longing he has for a meaningful connection with the opposite sex, all combine with the trauma of what he has seen and done in a very difficult war. At 19, Billy is wise beyond his years and we see him mature even in the passing of one single day. But despite this maturity, I couldn’t help but ache for Billy. The final chapter and the choice that Billy needs to make had me gripped and took away the air in my lungs. The resolution is poignant and beautiful.
Released in 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a stark reminder of the war we in Australia are quick to forget. But what really sold me on this book was that the politics of the war are not beaten down on you from a height. Bravo’s fame has come from Fox News’ video footage of the battle in question, and this leads to interesting discussion of the role of the media in the war on terror, but there remains no finger pointing, no lengthy monologues. We simply watch Billy as he walks through the football stadium, greeted by well-wishers and local personalities, and see their reactions to the human reminder of this conflict. Ben Fountain displays an enviable restraint that proves an effective counterpoint to the charged reporting and dialogue of the Iraq war.
This is a beautifully stark but engaging novel that has lingered with me. I am hesitant to discuss the plot too much as there are too many poignant moments to draw upon that I do not want to ruin for future readers. All I wish to do is encourage more and more people to seek out this gorgeous book and discover it for themselves.
After reading this book I wanted a simple, weeknight meal of roast flattened chicken, potatoes and dressed greens, inspired by Donna Hay’s recipe for Quick Flat Roasted Chicken, featured in her book The Instant Cook (the recipe is unfortunately not available online). The chicken leaves plenty of leftovers for weekday lunches, and cooler days lend well to a side of steamed beans or grilled asparagus over the summer leaves. Either way, a meal that is hearty and nourishing, yet comforting and uncomplicated.
Contemporary literary fiction is my thing. It’s rare for me to read non-fiction (other than essay collections), classics or speculative fiction for example. I love how writing of its time can hold up a magnifying glass and show us what’s really happening. This is what I love about Christos Tsiolkas’ novels and its one of the things I loved about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. At the end of 2013 Flavorwire published a list of the ’50 Books That Define The Past Five Years In Literature’. Amongst it sit some of my very favourite books: Just Kids by Patti Smith, A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; as well as some books on the top of my to-read list: The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and Tenth of December by George Saunders. Now to make my way through the rest…