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

Castle, by J. Robert Lennon (28 July)

This. Book. Was. Awful. Do not read this book. Do not pick up this book, because you will think that maybe it can redeem itself and you will be wrong but you will finish the book and then your brain will hurt and you will have nothing to say except that this book is awful.

I have no idea where I heard about this book. I searched my Google Reader archives — nothing. I checked a couple of non-RSS book review sites I read. Nothing. But somehow, sometime, I thought this book would be good. In fact, there are lots of glowing reviews of this book around the internets. They are wrong. I will now spoil the whole book for you so that you will not be tempted to read it.

From the beginning, this book was iffy for me. Lennon writes such sentences as, “It would please me to be able to say that I felt, upon my return to the house, a reprise of the confidence and enthusiasm that had braced me the previous day, when I announced to Jennifer that I wished to buy it.” And he writes such sentences with alarming frequency. The narrator is basically that jerk in your freshman comp class who wanted to prove that he knew big words and as such threw them into his speech and papers all willy-nilly. But Lennon, a writing instructor himself (really), at least uses the big words correctly.

But I was at the beach, and it was the only book I had, and I knew that for whatever reason I had wanted to read the book, so I continued.

The premise is, at first, possibly interesting. Jerk-face Eric Loesch comes back to his childhood hometown and buys some land and a house. Yay. He then smugly fixes it up with his apparent expertise in all areas. Whatever. But then he’s looking at the history of the house and notices that the previous owner’s name is blacked out and also that there’s a bit of land in the middle of his still owned by Redacted Man. He’s curious. He bitches at some people to find out who this owner is, and eventually someone comes through for him with a name; Avery Stiles.

Loesch goes to the library (yay!) to find out more about Stiles; he finds out that Stiles’s family is dead and that he used to work at a nearby university. Loesch then, for whatever reason, goes to the university to talk to a woman who wrote an article that mentioned Stiles to find out more about the man. He leaves. Also, he explores his giant 612-acre property to get to some giant rock formation in the middle but gets lost, which is an affront to his spectacular directional skillz. I hate Loesch.

Then some stupid stuff happens, and Loesch ends up back in the woods, searching for Stiles at Stiles’s castle in his property in the middle of Loesch’s property, and finds him, and gets all tied up by him, and then we find out that Loesch totally knows Stiles (uh, okay) because Stiles trained (read: tortured) Loesch for many years when Loesch was a kid, teaching him to only do what he was told and no more and leaving him naked in the same forest, at the same castle, and why on earth did Loesch ever act like he didn’t know who owned this property???

And then Loesch escapes, sort of, and climbs the giant rock from before and Stiles is up there and then there’s some sort of message passed between them that I don’t understand, and then Stiles jumps off the rock but also Loesch looses an arrow at him that goes through his heart, so Stiles is totally dead. And then Loesch is suddenly terrified of the woods for whatever reason and tries to run back to his house but falls in a giant pit and then sees himself leaning over the rim and then flashes back to the time he was an officer at Abu Ghraib (well, not really, but a similar place) and he killed a kid prisoner and then he was indefinitely furloughed and then he came back to his childhood hometown.

And then we’re back in the present, and Loesch is rescued from the woods and goes to the hospital and gets all fixed up and then he packs his duffel and then is picked up by someone who’s probably a soldier and is off on a mission and then the book is done. The end.

If you can explain this book to me, please do. But I don’t care enough to figure it out for myself.

Rating: 1/10