Author: Ben Fountain
Published: May 2012
Classification: Historical/Current Events Fiction
PoV: First person – stream of consciousness
Favorite Chapter Title: Dry-Humping For the Lord
Random Quote: “Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one to another.” (p. 197).
I’m stilling playing with my format so bear with me. I’m starting off this time with the back-page synopsis so you don’t have to read my blather without a general understanding of what the book is about. I just find these synopses funny because once I’ve read the book they seem like such a sad, commercial version of what the novel actually is – but I guess that’s the point?
Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour. During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty. Tomorrow he must go back to war.
This novel is completely brilliant, BRILLIANT, it pained me to put this book down to go back to work, or get off the train, or do whatever I had to do in the middle of reading. As with the previous book I reviewed, Wild, this is not the kind of book I would typically pick up, which is just why I chose it (I’ve been feeling frisky on my recent journeys to the bookstore). Upon first glance, it seemed like some liberal propagandist book criticizing the war, Bush, blah blah blah. As a teenager I was all about this, though I knew very little about war, politics, the news, etc., but you best believe I was a steadfast liberal, and thought I knew exactly what I was talking about when it came to the war. And now, as a slightly more informed semi-adult, this subject now bores me. Discussions about the Iraq War, 9/11, President Bush’s shortcomings, terror, etc. were part of the familial discussion growing up, so I feel no need to hash out whatever has already been discussed to death as long as we gained some knowledge from it. Plus… as ignorant as it sounds I’m not big on the news these days, CNN daily alerts on my phone are enough for now. So, initially, I thought this book would be, just a bunch of uninformed bull about the Iraq War, that some kid fresh out of liberal arts college had spilled on a page – but I was obviously wrong, again (sorry Ben Fountain wherever you are).
Though the novel is always orbiting around the subject of the Iraq War, President Bush, 9/11, etc. it doesn’t feel like Fountain is pushing an unbearable social commentary about this war upon you. Rather war and politics are entities that exist outside Billy’s inner world, like facts of life; if Billy was the Sun, the war is Earth, and 9/1,1 Mars. Which is how I feel about these events. They are in a way so much integrated into what I know about the world now, and are yet so abstract. I remember crying for weeks after 9/11, and will always associate the numbers 9-1-1 with it, but only really recognize it in the lines at the airport and signs on the train warning me to keep an eye out for “suspicious” activity (however, if you’ve ever ridden the ‘L’ late at night it’s hard to determine what signifies “suspicious”). In my opinion this book is more about the human condition than anything else. The human condition under duress. The human condition within society. The human condition in love. The human condition in body. The human condition in mind.
My Synopsis: Billy Lynn and his squad are “American Heroes”. They have been sent around the U.S. on a press tour. On the last day of their press tour before returning to Iraq, they find themselves special guests of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Billy is continually pulled between his thoughts of the past, present, and future; life, war, and death.
What I liked: The imagery is so on point. Fountain is the kind of writer I aspire to blossom into someday. He describes things in a way that at first can seem bizarre, but upon further examination is exactly what you’ve always wanted to say. And because of his colorful and precise imagery you are propelled through the novel, but may find yourself back tracking just to admire the hilarity, tragedy, and truth in a single line. Recently, when I’ve tried to explain why I loved this book so much I feel like one of those old exaggerated cartoon characters trying to pull the skin off their face from the bottom of their eye sockets out of pure frustration at my loss of words. Hopefully I’ve convinced you by this point to just read the book for yourself.
What I didn’t like: N/A.
Recommend: Yes. However, if you have an issue with rough language, and occasionally crude imagery, might want to steer clear. There’s not a ton of this, but it’s tossed around. I tend to be hypocritical when sex is discussed in novels because if it isn’t done right it either feels overly sentimental, or just gross, luckily I didn’t feel either one of these while reading.
I’ve also included a link to a NY Times review by Geoff Dyer (a little more organized and sensible than mine).
Live a warrior of the mind, die a hero of the soul.
Arty the Alien