Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkOh, 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.

Rating: 8/10

11/22/63, by Stephen King

So, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was not terribly excited for this book club pick. I’ve read and liked a few Stephen King books lately, but I’ve also been stuck halfway through The Stand since I got back from vacation at the beginning of August. I just can’t find time to read the other 500 pages when I could spend that time reading a whole book, you know? 11/22/63 is nearly as hefty, at 850 pages, and I was just not sure I could make it, especially since I started reading the book three days before book club.

However. It seems that King turned his “compulsively readable” dial up to eleven while writing this book, and so I found myself up into the wee hours of Sunday morning finishing it because I just had to know what happened! Excellent! Less excellent: the what that happened.

But let’s back up here. So the plot of the story, as you may already know, is that there’s a fella who gets himself recruited to go back in time and prevent the assassination of JFK. This I was leery of, as I know approximately squat about said assassination and I have a mostly-hate relationship with historical-type novels. But the lead-up to the time travelling is actually really well done, as the protagonist must be convinced to do it and so therefore I found myself convinced that this was totally a fantastic idea. Well, kind of a fantastic idea. The idea seems less fantastic the farther you go in the book.

Anyway, part of the convincing consists of proving that our fella, Jake, can change the past, and those chapters are probably the most compelling of the whole novel, because Jake actually cares about the people whose lives he is attempting to change and because it is interesting to see how the “obdurate” (this is a recurring word) past will try to trip him up.

Then the JFK part starts and it is unfortunately less exciting, largely because Jake has to hang out in the past for five years before he can actually, you know, stop the assassination. It’s interesting, because I now know slightly more than squat about JFK and Oswald and Dallas and all the events that wove these people together, and about the awesome conspiracy theories that exist, but it is also very long. There’s also a love story bit in here that is okay as far as unnecessary love stories go, but seriously, five years, yawwwn. Luckily King uses one of my favorite storytelling techniques, the “here’s what’s going to happen a few pages from now but hang on while I get us there” technique, to keep me turning those pages.

So I liked the story, overall, from beginning to whatever might happen when Jake finally meets up with Oswald, but then instead of, like, ending the story King goes off in a different direction entirely and (spoilers?) tries to explain how the time travel works and how it affects the future and it gets a bit post-apocalyptic but then manages to end on a really sappy note. I guess it was the right ending for the book as written, but I was over here expecting a different kind of book. Darn you, expectations!

Recommendation: For those who need an arm workout, or like history, or who are planning their own visit to November 1963?

Rating: 7/10