The BUZZ: This debut novel won the National Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was a National Book Award finalist.
The GIST: Soldier Billy Lynn and the surviving members of his Bravo squad are wrapping up their U.S. heroes tour with a stint at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Thanksgiving Day. As guests of the owner, they’re given VIP treatment – box seats, team autographs, a visit with the cheerleaders, a tour of the facilities, and all the Jack and Cokes they can guzzle. As the day proceeds, Billy Lynn recalls the day of their epic firefight in Iraq, the stops on their U.S. tour, and his heart-wrenching visit to his family, and he mulls over his observations about Americans and America. He’s a philosophical 19-year-old, naive and optimistic, unsure of his past or his future, and surprised and confused by the responses of press and people to his service and to the war itself. The day ebbs and flows, emotions running high and then blunted by alcohol and dashed expectations, and culminates in a spectacularly inappropriate half-time show. The ending is not sad or redemptive, it just is, and this is Fountain’s point.
The WRITING: Fast and furious. If you mashed up Tom Wolfe’s social commentary with the hilarious, every-nutjob-for-himself Carl Hiaasen, you’d get something close to Ben Fountain’s writing voice. The view of Americans in general, and Texans in particular, is less than flattering, and he lampoons both our fervent love of our soldiers and our complete disconnect from the war itself. All the while, he makes us laugh at the absurdity of our sports-and-spectacle-loving culture. We come to admire Billy Lynn and to understand how little we know about him or anyone fighting our wars; we see just how far away we have placed our military entanglements from our day-to-day lives; we recognize with some embarrassment how shallow we’ve become as a nation.
BUY or BORROW?: A qualified borrow – this will be a classic one day. It’s a strangely joyful novel, despite the specter of war hanging over it. I came away enlightened and entertained. Fountain’s observations of human nature are sharp and wise, and the novel deepens our understanding of this confusing, post 9/11 era.
He wishes that just once somebody would call him baby-killer, but this doesn’t seem to occur to them, that babies have been killed. Instead they talk about democracy, development, dubya em dees. They want so badly to believe, he’ll give them that much, they are as fervent as children insisting Santa Claus is real because once you stop believing, well, then what, maybe he doesn’t come anymore?