Anyone who aspires to write will find the story of Ben Fountain—and the story of how his first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, came to be —both inspiring and heart-rending. Fountain began writing fiction at the age of thirty. He did not begin by dabbling, dangling pretty sentences together in the mornings before work or the hours after. No, Fountain went all in—which isn’t surprising, as his writing reflects the engagement of someone who is all in. He quit his job as a lawyer at a Dallas law firm to become a writer. His wife had recently made partner—which, let’s not forget, helped make such a decision possible. But Fountain also took his new job seriously, beginning that first Monday by sitting at his kitchen table with a notebook and pen, first charting out a writing schedule and then getting to work on a short story. Ben Fountain’s daily perseverance even inspired Malcolm Gladwell to declare him a late-blooming genius in a 2008 article in the New Yorker.
So this is, of course, a tale of success. Fountain has received numerous awards and published two books now; the first, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, won the PEN/Hemingway award. But it is not a story without struggle. His latest novel is being called his first, but two unpublished novels precede Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Fountain spent ten years writing a different novel, The Texas Itch, which he tried to publish after Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. But his editor at Ecco told him the novel just wasn’t coming together, no matter how many rounds of revisions it went through.
Fountain mourned this devastating blow to his career for a week. The next week he was back at the kitchen table, writing again. He started with a short story about a young woman in the aftermath of a terrible accident; in the midst of her recovery, she writes letters back and forth with her brother, Billy, a soldier in Iraq. Billy soon became the eponymous Billy of Fountain’s new novel, and that rebound short story turned into a masterly book that exposes the life and psyche of a young man over the course of a single day. That day is not a day at war, but a Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where Billy and the seven other men in his squadron, dubbed “Bravo” by the media, are spending the last day of a two-week long victory tour.
The victory tour is Bravo’s “reward” for a firefight in Iraq that left one of their best men (and Billy’s closest friend) dead and another grievously injured. Fox News broadcast the firefight live, giving the men of Bravo fame that bewilders them, especially Billy who earned a silver star from the battle. “The world happened that day…” Billy realizes during a mind-numbing press conference at Texas Stadium, “and he’s beginning to understand he will spend the rest of his life trying to figure it out.”
The Bravos are the first to perceive the victory tour as a thinly veiled PR stunt to garner support for a war that’s going terribly. Shipped from Iraq to the States with less than two hours notice, they are shuttled across the country, to malls and convention centers, with just twenty-four heartbreaking hours with their families. Bright-eyed, patriotic fans approach Bravo for autographs, thank them for their service, and talk to them about “democracy, development, dubya em dees.” The over-the-top patriotism wears on nineteen-year-old Billy, though he never lets it show. He does, however, “wish that just once somebody would call him a baby-killer, but this doesn’t seem to occur to them, that babies have been killed.”
The novel takes place in real time, but Billy’s mind wanders often to the war and to Iraq, where the Bravos are to return in just forty-eight hours. It’s not exactly a secret that the men are being shipped back to finish out their tour, but it’s not being advertised, either.
Within the framework of this tightly structured book, Fountain includes a sprawling amount of drama and emotion. During a halftime show featuring Destiny’s Child with Bravo in formation below the stage, Fountain summarily depicts the fate of the Bravos: to be forgotten, their sanity and safety never a consideration in all the fanfare. The lights and sounds of the show are PTSD-inducing, but “Bravos can deal, you bet, though none of them are looking particularly good at the moment. There’s too many people running around, too much bug-eyed panic, all the freak-out flavors of an ambush situation without any of the compensating murderous release.” Hero Billy just grins and bears it.
There’s a movie deal in the works for Bravo, except the producer interested in their story explains that no studio in Hollywood will commit until a star commits, which makes the Bravos “emit an appreciative ahhhh. The paradox is so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify.” This book has been hailed “the Catch-22 of the Iraq war,” and it’s no wonder.
By the end of the book, Billy finds himself in his own life paradox: there’s a way he could get out of the war, but how could he ever leave the Bravos? He knows that “he’d expire from grief and guilt at not being there with them.” But in the course of this single day, virginal Billy has also fallen in love with a Dallas cheerleader, and love, of course, changes a heart, even the heart of a soldier, inspiring Billy to ponder, “How does anyone ever know anything—the past is a fog that breathes out ghost after ghost, the present a freeway thunder run at 90 mph, which makes the future the ultimate black hole of futile speculation.” Fountain plays with these speeds of time with his own exquisite sense of timing, and by the book’s end it is clear that his patience has finally, beautifully, paid off.