I acquired Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as a free Kindle download sometime this summer. I don’t take every free book that comes my way, but this one struck me as potentially worthwhile. But due to the stack of books silently beckoning from my e-reader, my bookshelves and my nightstand, it had to wait in the wings.

Then it was nominated for the National Book Award.

And I don’t know about you, but I am a super fan of the National Book Awards. I think the NBA’s are a much better arbiter of success, accessibility and readability than those snobby Pulitzers are. Let’s just say I’ve liked a number more NBA winners than I have Pulitzer Prize winners. Yeah, I said it. So that endeared me even more and there you go… I was reading it.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk centers on Bravo Company, an Army unit being heralded for surviving an intense firefight with Iraqi insurgents at the “battle of Al-Ansakar Canal.” The battle, captured on film by an imbedded FOX news team has made the young men of Bravo national heroes and stars of their very own brief U.S. victory tour before heading back to the Gulf.

Bravo’s victory tour, and Fountains novel, takes place predominately in the stands, breezeways, and skyboxes of the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium on Thanksgiving Day in a match up against the Bears. Escorted by Hollywood movie producer Albert Ratner, the man convinced Bravo Company’s story is made for the big screen, the young soldiers are corralled through a bizarre and dizzying day of awkward fan encounters, a halftime show theatrics, physical altercations and constant negotiations.

Fountain excels crafting a wholly accurate picture of this young band of brothers. Bravo Company is what we would expect of an Army unit—brave, brash, loyal and humble. Their dialogue is sharp, witty, foul and even tender at times. In one moment these testosterone-charged men are thrilled at the prospect of meeting their halftime show partners Destiny’s Child, mingling with the Cowboy’s cheerleaders and closing in on a deal that will bring their life story to the big screen. They can go from wobbly uncertainty to a full about face at a moment’s notice. The military teaches you that.

“Billy felt his stride going wonky, his arms starting to flail, but a quick glance at Dime settled him down. Shoulders square, eyes forward, head tipped six degrees as if dignity was a shot glass you balanced on your chin… Fake it till you make it, he reminds himself. This is how he’s survived Army life so far.”

The man faking it is the star of the show, Specialist and Silver Star William Lynn. The 19-year old Bravo Company member grapples with his own ‘celebrity’ while internalizing conflicting feelings of faith, family, love and his own military service. Billy isn’t old enough to vote, but he’s old enough to die defending freedom—this reality is not lost on him or the reader.

Fountain didn’t win the National Book Award for Fiction this year (it went to Louise Erdrich). That’s okay. Billy Lynn is his first novel. What he has done though, is brought to life a character that a reader can instantly identify with, connect with and root for. He’s created a story that hits close to home in an important and necessary way. Add in the expertly woven themes of patriotism, politics and propaganda and he’s created a story as funny as it is heartbreaking.

Rating: 4 stars.
Pages: 307
Genre: Fiction