When a bestselling author gives you a book suggestion, it's best to listen.
I asked Jess Walter ("Beautiful Ruins") to name the last book book he had read when I spoke with him late last fall. After hesitating because, he said, there are so many great books out there, he recommended Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk—a National Book Award finalist by Ben Fountain. I immediately added to my library cue and just recently got the golden ticket—and post reading, wish I had just bought the damn thing so I could have enjoyed it earlier.
In the same vein as one of my recent faves, The Art of Fielding, Fountain's protagonist is 19-year-old Billy Lynn, a self-described Army grunt who finds himself in the middle of a national pridefest for his unit's bravery in an Iraqi firefight. The story is told entirely from his view, which thanks to his age, is still evolving. Billy and his cohorts are on their way to their last appearance as part of their "Victory Tour" prior to being shipped back overseas to complete their tour of duty. It's been a whirlwind two weeks, including a trip to see Billy's family and a funeral for a friend.
It's clear the men of Bravo are in all sorts of pain, physically and more importantly, emotionally. Their story is laid out over the course of a single day—a day that begins with Billy nursing a hangover. His headache, though, is secondary to his heartache—heartache for his mother and sisters, one of which is the reason Billy is in the army, his best friend 'Shroom, and for himself—trying to find some realistic, romantic connection with mere hours left in the States.
The book does a fantastic job exploring the themes of family and friendship and takes a really stark look at American patriotism as its tied to financial fortunes. The devil's in the details for poor Albert, the maybe-not-so-hard-driving movie producer trying to negotiate a deal before the boys ship out once more.
Fountain does a really nice job bringing the story full circle in it last scenes, with shades of the insurgency that nearly killed them coming back full force—and an impressive "F*** you" ending that leaves you questioning a person's price tag on patriotism, and almost heartbroken as the Bravo unit's limo pulls away.
Should you read this? It's top-notch storytelling, so I'm giving it the big thumbs up. I would even go so far as to say this may be a good read for boys who don't necessarily like to read—provided parents are OK with some gratuitous sex, lots of alcohol and a joint making the rounds. Don't pass this one up ...
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