Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALKBen Fountain Canongate, $29.99
Nanjing Night Net

On a grey afternoon at Texas Stadium, Bravo Squad is enduring the last event in its two-week morale-raising tour of the US. The morale that needs raising is not Bravo’s but America’s, and the eight young men of Bravo, whose bloody firefight on the Al-Ansakar Canal in Iraq was captured on film and has been playing in triumphant high-rotation on cable TV ever since, are the freshly minted heroes to do it.

In the course of an afternoon, 19-year-old specialist Billy Lynn will play his part in a half-time spectacular of US splendour, brush past Beyonce, have sex of a kind with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, hobnob with ham-faced oil barons and negotiate a movie version of Al-Ansakar. He will also worry about his family and go over the ”ultimately unfathomable facts” of the battle itself, ”how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests, sights not to be believed and never forgotten”.

Billy’s crazy afternoon seems implausible, and that’s the point: the behemoth of American self-celebration on Thanksgiving weekend is also implausible, a ”nightmare of superabundance” and ritual in which innocence and knowledge are carefully kept apart. Fountain’s hugely ambitious first novel is compacted into one long afternoon at a game, but it has all America in its sights. To Bravo – ”the most murdering bunch of psychopaths you’ll ever see”, as its sergeant assures well-wishers – the home of the brave suddenly seems childish and surreal.

Ironies abound, but Fountain is more interested in Billy’s experience than easy satire. Billy may be a poor, uneducated kid, but he’s also shrewd and attentive. He’s determined to learn all he can from his brief glimpse behind the scenes of the American dream, and as he wanders through the novel’s dizzying swirl of brawling, fantasy and love, he misses nothing. Fountain conveys Billy’s peeled-eyeball afternoon in fizzing, kinetic prose that can be deadpan, cheerfully profane and savagely funny all in the space of a sentence.

The stadium setting, with its monetised patriotism, hotdog fug and moment-in-time atmosphere, recalls Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But Fountain’s superb novel is a more frenetic encounter with history, and a more heartfelt one.

Behind the violence and manic laughter is a sympathetic vision of how people cope with the world as it is, and with the burden of experience.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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