Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy LynnWhy this book:  Suggested by my good friend Carl Czech to be read by a reading group I’m in at work. I hadn’t heard of it, but after getting started, I found out that it is winner of the National Book critics circle award for fiction, winner, LA time Book award for fiction, finalist in the National Book Award and a number of other awards.   SF Chronicle called it Pulitzer Prize-quality good.

Summary in 3 sentences:  A squad of army infantry soldiers is engaged in a firefight in Iraq in which  with heroism they overcome a superior force – which is  caught on film by an embedded FOX news crew, and the film goes viral in America.   The Army then decides to capitalize on this engaging image of their soldiers perfuming at their best and brings the squad back to the US on a “victory” tour for two weeks,  to help promote the Army, help with recruiting and win support for the war – similarly to what the US military has done in previous conflicts. This book covers one day of that trip – when they are hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, to be shown on the jumbotron,  meet the celebrities, players, cheerleaders, and participate in the half-time show.

My impressions:   I loved this book – it was not only insightful and thought provoking,  but also fun to read and filled with satire and wit.   I actually listened to most of it on audible, but purchased the book after I started listening to it, since I wanted to compare the reading to the listening experience.    Reading it was good, but I really enjoyed the audible version – the reader, Oliver Wyman, not only read it – he performed it, using different voices and accents to craft very credible versions of the multitude of characters in the book.  He is in fact an accomplished professional voice actor.

Time frame of the story was when the Iraq war was at one of its early violent peaks –  2004 – 2005-ish.  Bravo squad – referred to throughout the book as “the Bravos” – is all enlisted led by their very competent and assertively sardonic sergeant.  For their two week victory tour, they were chaperoned by a Public Affairs specialist, and a rather disengaged Army Major.  This book is about the last day of that victory tour, when they were guests of the Dallas Cowboys organization, and were included as VIPs in a number of pre-game events and then participated with Beyonce and Destiny’s Child in the half-time spectacle.  After the game they were to be driven back to Ft Hood, Texas to then fly back to Iraq the following day, to then surrender their celebrity status for the life of a grunt, fighting an implacable enemy in ground combat.   The victory tour and the Dallas Cowboys experience was a brief interlude, shoe-horned into their 12 month combat tour in Iraq.  The contrast could hardly have been greater.

Billy Lynn is the protagonist in this story.  At only 19 years old, he is the youngest of the Bravos, and was also the hero of the firefight that was filmed and which generated the victory tour. For heroically rescuing and trying to save the life of his close friend, Billy was put in for the Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to the Silver Star for gallantry, still a very high award.  Such downgrading is not at all unusual.    Billy is also  the most sensitive, self-conscious, humble, and introspective member of the Bravos.   And it is from his perspective and through his eyes that we get to know the other Bravos and experience the hospitality they are shown by the Dallas Cowboys organization on the particular day covered by this book.

The rest of the Bravos represent the Army infantry – young, a bit cocky, street smart, not particularly cultured nor sophisticated, distrustful of authority, still testing out their manhood, mostly from broken or dysfunctional families, each with nicknames they’ve given to each other:  Crack, Mango, A-bort, Day, Lodis, Shroom, and Dime, their sergeant.  Each with his own distinct personality.  A few we get to know; others are just bit players in the story.

The Bravos also represent the diversity of American culture that one finds in the Army infantry:  Hispanic, African-American, po-white-trash,  Amerindian  – Billy is an anglo from a family down on its lucks.  In short, they represent that part of America which is not doing so well, those for whom the American Dream is fairly elusive  They enlisted in the Army because they didn’t see any better options – they volunteer to fight Americas wars on behalf of people who don’t need or want to join the Army.  Through Billy’s eyes, we get to know and love his fellow Bravos – quirky, crude, immature, profane, cynical, disrespectful of most of polite society’s norms, loyal to each other, and tough – kept in line by Dime, their sergeant, who they fear and respect.

The real humor in the book is how Ben Fountain clearly contrasts the Bravos from their handlers and hosts at the Dallas Cowboys football game.  As celebrities-of-the-moment, they are hosted and toasted by the representatives of another universe in America –  the main power players in Dallas Cowboy football, and a broad spectrum of others in the mainstream of success in America.   These include Josh, their polite, well-groomed nice-guy public affairs escort;  Albert from Hollywood, a successful movie producer trying to find a studio to finance a movie he wants to make about the Bravos; Norm, the mega-wealthy owner of the Dallas Cowboys and his entourage of wealthy hangers-on; the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the Dallas Cowboy football players, the Dallas Cowboy fans.  All very different from the US Army, very different from the culture of soldiers in combat.  Ben Fountain is sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, always clever in how he highlights these differences.

Fountain’s satirical depiction of all of these characters is brilliant and not at all over the top.  As he satires them, he respects them all.   His descriptions are often so spot on, it’s hard to tell when he’s pulling our leg with absurdities – because in today’s America, it is often hard to know what to believe, what is real.  For example, Albert is proposing Hillary Swank to play multiple male roles in the movie about the Bravos – arguing that would virtually guarantee financial success.  Albert’s riff on the absurdity of Hollywood is classic.  Another example:  Billy is still a virgin, but while out with the Bravos on their victory tour visit to Las Vegas, he did get a blow job.  Does that count?  He doesn’t know.  Ask Bill Clinton.  Billy wasn’t impressed – he just wants to fall in love.

The humor the Bravos use among themselves is profane, aggressive,  good natured, and NOT-AT-ALL politically correct.  Many of those who enthusiastically “support the troops” and proudly thank them for their service would be shocked and offended if confronted with the reality of who these young soldiers truly are – cocky and profane, red-blooded, working class American men.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time.   Fountain’s writing (and narrating) brought the main characters to life – I could almost see them as we got to know them through the story.  He holds up an uncomfortable mirror to American Culture and gives a great perspective on why I feel just a bit uneasy  – maybe even just a bit used – when people thank me for my service.   The book portrays in a very clever and subtle way, the collision between two cultures in America:  the poor and struggling – who make up a large percentage of those fighting and dying on the ground in our current wars, and the wealthy and privileged, for whom life in America is just one great opportunity after another.

The language is amazing – juxtaposing the profane street language of young male soldiers,  talking shit, talking about meeting chicks, getting laid, getting drunk, getting money, posturing before each other as young men (all men) tend to do, and the amazing language that Ben Fountain, the author and narrator, uses to  describe what’s happening.

As I was considering why this book so appealed to me, I realized that I had just read three successive books by women, about women, telling a woman’s story – all excellent and insightful – Crux, Eternal Life, The Silence of the Girls.   Reading Billy Lynn, however was a pleasant break – I really enjoyed a well-written book by a guy, about guys, military guys, doing the kind of work I used to do.  Ben Fountain accurately portrays the culture of young men who do the toughest ground combat jobs in the military.  He also cleverly uncovers some of my own ambivalences about American culture and how main-stream and affluent Americans often patronize in subtly condescending ways, those it sends overseas to fight its wars.   Like so few books – it can be appreciated on many levels – as a fun and funny satire,  and also as deeply profound.

This book gets five stars from me.


Some notes for myself before we discuss this book in my reading group – in fact 2 reading groups – my literature reading group and my at work leaders reading group:

Contrasts between The Bravos, their experience in combat, and:

  • Hollywood thru Albert
  • The PA guy and the press
  • The people who gushingly thank him for his service.
  • The fans at the Football Game
  • Norm and his entourage of wealthy hangers-on
  • Beyonce and her team
  • The stage crew
  • The Dallas Cowboy Football players
  • The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders
  • Their own families
  • The American public and how they perceive the war and the military.


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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1 Response to Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk, by Ben Fountain

  1. Janar Joseph Wasito says:

    Excellent review

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