WHERE IS THE RED-HOT center of Red-State America? Geographically, it probably sits in some lonely Kansas cornfield. Politically, you would have to place it in those gaseous two inches between Rush Limbaugh's mouth and his microphone. But culturally, Red-State America's belly button, the navel into which God-fearing, flag-waving conservatives gaze when they most want to like what they see, is almost certainly the 50 yard line at Texas Stadium during the half-time show of the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.
All of which explains why Ben Fountain has built Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, his antic satire of America in the Dubya Years, around a single Cowboys vs. Bears football game. In the novel, an eight-man squad of infantry soldiers, made famous by a Fox News video of a heroic gun battle in Iraq, wind up on a nationwide publicity tour, appearing as guests of honor during the half-time show of the Thanksgiving Classic in Dallas.
If this seems a rather thin premise for a 320-page novel, rest assured that Fountain has heard the sound of ten-thousand readers flipping ahead to find the, you know, plot, and has juiced up the slower bits with high-octane prose and rafts of larger-than-life characters. While the Iraq veterans watch the game, they crack wise; smoke pot with the kitchen help; lust after Beyoncé, who stars in the half-time show; hobnob with right-leaning rich Texans and their surgically enhanced wives; have not one, but two pitched battles with a gang of roadies armed with wrenches, pipes, and crowbars; all while trying to negotiate a Hollywood movie deal to cash in on their televised heroics. And if that isn't enough, the title character, Specialist Billy Lynn, brings a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader to the point of shuddering orgasm with little more than some earnest conversation and a few passionate kisses.
By all rights, this spectacle-heavy, elongated short story shouldn't really work as a novel, and for long stretches it doesn't, but Fountain is so gifted a storyteller, and his observations of that period's vulgarity are so deadly accurate, that one forgives the book its longueurs. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is not the book our grandchildren will be reading 50 years from now to find out what life was like in this country during the Iraq War, but it is entertaining enough to pass the time until such a book comes along.
Fountain's debut, the 2006 story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, won a PEN/Hemingway Award, but many readers may have first heard of him from a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker essay two years later, which posited Fountain as poster boy for late-blooming geniuses. The essay, written with that Gladwellian mix of heartwarming storytelling and great, swocking generalizations, compared Fountain to Paul Cézanne, arguing that both men came late to their genius "not as a result of some defect of character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes time to come to fruition."
This may be true, but it is unfortunate that Fountain, for all his gifts, is such a slow worker. Billy Lynn is very much the work of a writer still plodding through the formal complications of transitioning from the short story ...read more