A Warrior's Welcome In 'Billy Lynn'
Jonathan Evison's latest novel is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.
Every two or three years, if I'm lucky, I get my hands on a novel that I simply can't shut up about, a novel I shout from my humble mountaintop to anyone who will listen, a novel that I hand-sell any time I have a literate audience of one or more. In many cases, I'll purchase this novel, over and over and over, and put it in the hands of readers. The last novel that knocked me for this kind of a whammy was Hesh Kestin's criminally underappreciated The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, which left me breathless with its mastery of character and suspense.
2012 has been a banner year for literary fiction. I've been crowing about a number of novels this year, from Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, to Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, both brilliant and inventive. But one novel this year blew the top of my head off like no other, and that was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
When 19-year-old Spc. Billy Lynn, one of eight surviving members of the celebrated Bravo Squad, returns stateside from Iraq for an eight-day victory tour, he finds himself a national hero. Bravo's dog-and-pony show and its attendant media blitz culminates on Thanksgiving Day, during the halftime celebration of a Dallas Cowboys football game in Billy's native Texas. As Thanksgiving unfolds, amid an almost overwhelming flurry of activity, Billy confronts a barrage of questions about family, nation, patriotism, celebrity and love.
Like many of my favorite novels, the synopsis sounds rather uneventful — it's not. Though its scope may not be epic — a single afternoon — the novel has a profound thematic reach. Without ever hitting a false note, Fountain tackles the unwieldy subjects of Iraq, the war on terrorism, class, consumerism and politics. What's even more impressive is that he accomplishes all of this employing a tiny aperture, a lone point of view, a single location and does it in real time: No brow-beating, no navel gazing and no ranting. Just great storytelling, fully realized characters and sentences that crackle. In short, Fountain makes it look easy.
To read Billy Lynn is to engage in a pure, tactile state of sensory overload. You feel this story with your whole body — all the adrenaline, tension and nausea. The novel is a veritable decoupage of physical sensation — from the sodium glare of stadium lights, to the acid sting of bitterness in the throat; from the woozy disequilibrium of a Jack Daniels hangover, to the galloping heartbeat of unfettered carnality. Fountain achieves that rare level of evocation that makes readers feel as though they lived it.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.