Connecting with 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk'
I have a young friend who was a hero in Iraq, not that he’d claim that title, but I saw him that way. He was part of the team that knocked down doors in Fallujah seeking insurgents, not knowing what, or whom he’d find on the other side of the door. I watched his mother fret and founder, become a nervous wreck during his three tours. I sent him audios to share with his fellow soldiers. And when I learned that the food sources didn’t always arrive on time, I several times sent biscotti (the only cookie I knew could endure the long trek across seas and continents). Through his mum, I learned he was grateful, but would I leave off the chocolate because it melted under the desert sun.
And when my young friend came home, he couldn’t find a job. He’d done the most important job in the world and the U.S. welcomed him back, but there was nothing for him to do that mattered, made a difference. He finally found a salesperson’s job that fit him not at all and when he tried to re-enter the military, he faced endless problems. He’s now made Special Ops. So far, his story has a happy ending.
I thought of him much as I listened to Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” read by Oliver Wyman (Harper, about 12 hours). The hero of the story is Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old war hero who’s faced a fierce insurgent battle where he suffered the trauma of having his squadron leader die in his arms. Now Billy is one of eight Bravo Squad crew back in the U.S. being celebrated on a victory tour. The story takes place on one day when Crew is trotted out at a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, paraded around in hopes of making an impression that will result in a movie. But will Hillary Swank accept the role? Will she be the heroine? Will they change the setting to WWII? Will the company get screwed by a pittance pay off?
The story is told primarily through Billy’s stream of consciousness which makes it imperative that Oliver Wyman swiftly switches characters and moods. He does so smoothly, managing to increase the irony without turning the major characters into caricatures. There is, for example, the wealthy, sincere owner of the Cowboys who seems genuinely taken with Billy’s bravery, interested in improving Billy and himself and then, later, reneges on everything like a spoiled little boy when he doesn’t get his way. There’s the pushy, smarmy movie producer who rockets between praise, promises and taking a hard line. More surface characters are well-portrayed as glad-handers, and the confused football players who are all too curious about what it’s like to kill another human being.
Wyman did not miss opportunities to seize on the humor provided by commercialism, over sentimentality and the snide and furious reactions of the soldiers. But his portrayal of Billy has the most depth. Billy whom he presents with a curious mix of naiveté and wisdom, loneliness and desire for a Christian cheerleader that’s more emotional than physical. His confusion is complicated by alcohol, his buddies’ mix of emotions, and knowing that a return to battle faces him after this superficial spin of celebrity status.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.