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December 29, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

I recently finished Ben Fountain's excellent Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a striking novel which really captures through its highly specific narrative both the sense of what it is to be a soldier, and what it is to be a nineteen-year-old kid. It's a stark reminder, particularly at this time of year, that we have young people fighting on our behalf around the world.

It's such a beautifully realized portrait of this young man -- after reading it, you feel you know both Billy Lynn and by extension and generalization, the real soldiers with boots on the ground in less hospitable locations than the comfortable chair I occupied while reading the book. And yet at the same time it actively fights us making those generalizations by how it treats the many civilians in the novel who want to get to know Billy Lynn and the rest of Bravo Squad, unidentified by name and usually only sketched in appearance, speaking in what Fountain renders as clouds of words with only the ones a soldier hears again and again from civilians included (honor, duty, sacrifice, terrorist, hero).

The novel captures primarily the events of one day in the life of Billy Lynn, spent on a hero's tour through the United States after a battle by his unit, Bravo Squad, was captured on video by an embedded news reporter. It's Thanksgiving, and the Bravos are spending it at the Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium, led around at times by the owner of the team and being a part of the halftime show. I'm not going to go into the many events that happened over the course of the day, because I think everyone should read this novel, particularly people who'd like to publish a novel of their own one day. It greatly affected me, taking me back to what it was like to be nineteen years old, when chance encounters can mean so much, and making me wonder at what we put some of our nineteen-year-olds through.

This is one of those things that the various modern war video games hasn't done for me¹. The first-person war shooters I've played generally shy away from being specific about the character the player inhabits, choosing instead the bland, generic protagonist, expecting that the player will thus achieve greater immersion². I think it's worthwhile recalling that in making that choice, we lose the opportunity to allow the player to empathically identify with a more realistic person, like Billy Lynn³.

I'll be back soon to discuss Jodi Kantor's The Obamas, and after that, Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary and Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character for any who are thinking of joining me in this ride through the past year's New York Times Notable Books.

¹Though I admit I've played relatively few of them because they don't appeal to me; the strangeness of occupying the shoes of a soldier fighting with weapons akin to those being used by real American soldiers in conflicts similar to real-world ones always bothers me to a degree.
²One exception is the flashback missions I recall from the first Modern Warfare, in which the player goes back in time and plays as Soap McTavish. These missions connected with me better both because they were remote from real-world conflict of today and because there was a stronger sense of McTavish as a "real" person -- he was still every gruff superior officer you've seen portrayed by a character actor, but that's far more than the named protagonist you mostly inhabit through the game, and whose name I've tellingly forgotten.
³To be fair, Billy Lynn is mostly described through a really close third-person narration, and indeed characters in third-person games tend to be more interesting, though only just.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 29, 2012 08:26 AM