Writer Ben Fountain was introduced to the world through a 2008 Malcolm Gladwell essay about artistic talent. In it, Gladwell questions the model of the young prodigy, juxtaposing Fountain—who wrote full-time for 18 years before the publication of his short-story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara—and wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer. But Gladwell’s questions about the ebb and flow of creativity won’t be settled by Fountain’s first novel, which is great fun until it gets bogged down in its own meaningfulness.
At first, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes a righteous bite out of America in wartime through the eyes of Billy Lynn, a private in Iraq made famous when a viral video of his company receives nonstop play on Fox News. Lionized for their role in the battle of al-Ansakar Canal, Bravo Company has been sent on a two-week goodwill tour of the U.S. before its next deployment, culminating at the Thanksgiving Day Cowboys-Bears game in Dallas and a setpiece that places the Bravos, confused and drunk, in the middle of the Destiny’s Child halftime show. (YouTube reveals that Fountain erred in his re-creation, but he correctly describes the objects of Billy’s fixation, the real bayonets carried by the honor guard.)
Even beyond that planned spectacle, Fountain toys with the absurd pageantry surrounding Billy as the purported hero of the firefight. Even through his confusion (and the steady stream of free drinks), he pauses before what feels to him like a premature celebration. But Fountain loses his easy rhythm in his attempt to turn Billy Lynn’s hesitation into some kind of choice based on conscience, and what’s supposed to be his awakening reduces a complex, sensitive character to a single pivot point regarding the abruptly introduced question of whether he should go back to Iraq at all.
In efforts to shape Billy’s free-range skittishness into weighing those odds, Fountain resorts to sentimental phrases like the ones Billy hears parroted back at him from everyone he meets—only without the remove of the narrator to balance them out. The plot drowns out Billy’s complex feelings toward home and his fellow soldiers with the triumphant patriotism of a big brass band to create a big, showy ending that does no justice to the relationships developed at leisure throughout Halftime. That’s when Billy Lynn and the Bravos stop being human and are cut down to the heroic silhouettes others see them as. It’s a devastatingly cynical ending, wrapped in bunting. Billy’s real walk ends when, after a long and fascinating acquaintance, he is allowed to sink back into anonymity in service to that ending.