Oh, Billy Lynn, with your title that I can never remember correctly or in full. You are a strange little book, and I’m still not sure if I really like you, but I can definitely see why you keep getting nominated for awards.
This was a tough book to get into, and to start discussing when it was time for my book club meeting. On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of a group of soldiers who did some heroic things in Iraq and have therefore been recruited by the George W. Bush-era government to go on a victory tour culminating in an appearance at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game. We hang out with the nineteen-year-old Billy and our other soldier friends in the stadium and environs (the ride there, the seats, the owner’s box, the field, the concession area — there is a lot of stadium in this novel!) as they try to figure out what they’re even supposed to be doing as part of the halftime show and also try to get a movie deal made before they ship back out in two days.
It starts off slowly, but somewhere in there it starts to pick up steam and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen with these guys, so plot-wise it’s a pretty good read. But even more important than the actual story is the underlying satire that is almost difficult to see. Where its spiritual predecessor, Catch-22 (which I love and which it references and which, apparently, is big in the advertising push for Billy Lynn) is a flamboyantly ridiculous sendup of the military and the bureaucracy of war, Billy Lynn is a quiet but pointed jab at our pro-war, pro-soldier, pro-patriotism, pro-America society.
Billy & Co. spend a lot of time throughout the novel answering the same questions from different people — How is the war going? Is there an end in sight? Are we helping those poor souls? — and being told how wonderful and brave and patriotic they are for going out and fighting for the American way and all that, even though there’s not one soldier present that these mostly upper-class conversationalists would likely give the time of day to otherwise. At the same time, they are hearing half of several phone calls between their putative Hollywood producer and the rest of Hollywood that say that the Iraq War is not a seat-filler and maybe could it be a World War II movie instead? With Hilary Swank playing one or more of the all-male soldiers?
And then the actual halftime show, goodness. Face, meet palm.
I will say that I didn’t connect with everything in this story; there’s an extended sequence with Billy visiting home and being a little gross about it and also interacting with his intensely dysfunctional family, and a very strange bit with Billy and a cheerleader in an alcove, and the ending is a bit out of nowhere. But after some time away from the book, I think less about the weird stuff and more about how weird it is to send teenagers off to fight wars so that I can sit in this comfy chair and write about books I read. I am made uncomfortable, in a very good way.
I’m glad that Billy Lynn did not suffer the same fate as the movie within it, and I may actually go read some of the other recent Iraq War novels that are coming out now because I, for one, am World War II-ed out.
Recommendation: Not a must-read, but definitely an interesting read for anyone who experienced the USA of the last ten or so years.