Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
War is a petri dish for the creation of great literature. Setting aside the absence from the “forgotten war” in Korea, the United States‘ recent military engagements have inspired The Naked and the Dead and Catch 22 from World War II and The Things They Carried and Dispatches from the Vietnam War. Yet until recently there has been a glaring absence of a defining work from the War on Terror. Until now.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days” according to one critic. Billy Lynn is a 19 year old member of Bravo Squad, a military unit in Iraq that finds itself heavily outnumbered in a firefight with insurgents. Serendipitously, an embedded Fox TV News crew comes on the scene and produces a three and half minute video of the ensuing battle that goes viral. Bravo Squad’s eight surviving members become national heroes and are brought home for a triumphant two week celebratory tour. Fountain’s novel narrates the final 24 hours of that tour as our heroes are brought to Texas Stadium for the Cowboys annual Thanksgiving Day football game.
As an example of this book’s capacity for verisimilitude, at one point while reading I actually reached for my laptop to look at the You Tube video of Bravo Company’s heroics. Far more than merely a book about the destructive effects of war, Halftime is an eviscerating snapshot of the hollowness of contemporary American culture. While we may try to fill that void with the inanity of things like football and alcohol and money, the emptiness, author Fountain suggests, is partly what defines us. But this remarkable novel, National Book Award nominee and winner of the Critic’s Circle Award, also reminds us of the capacity for art to lift us above the daily fray and provoke us to reflect upon where we wish to go from here.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]