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What do you find if you go online and start searching for "Al-Ansakar Canal," "Bravo snuff movie," or "America's throbbing cock of justice"? Well, in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, what you find is a few minutes of Fox News footage that changes the lives of an average bunch of grunts forever.
By the way, you can blame author Ben Fountain for the salty language above, not us. We mean, sure, let's face it, swearing can be pretty funny, but our grandmas would wash our mouths out with soap if we said stuff like that. And, you know, usually people stop thinking something is high literature when each paragraph is riddled with F-bombs and sex jokes.
Yeah, well, Ben Fountain is here to show you that the kind of language you hear from a bunch of bored, horny, bro-tacular adolescents should be considered a high art form, because the things they're saying can actually be pretty deep. And these are the kinds of jolt-you-out-of-your-complacency insights that pretty much require some four-letter words to get the point across.
If Fountain has tapped into the magic of writing dialogue in a way that truly captures the way a bunch of cussing, arm-punching, hair-ruffling bros talk, that's because he actually respects what they're saying. One New York Times reviewer called this skill a "synesthetic knack of making us see by hearing" (source), and we love it.
A bunch of other people love it, too. Published in 2012, Billy Lynn won that year's National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction as well as the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and it was a finalist for the National Book Awards. As an anti-war satire, it's been dubbed "this generation's Catch-22" (source) by the famous Vietnam-vet-turned-novelist Karl Marlantes—which is no small matter.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk got a lot of attention from the literary-circle types, especially after Ben Fountain was dubbed a genius on the scale of Cézanne and Picasso by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (source). It's also been made into a big, hyper-realistic movie helmed by none other than director Ang Lee.
The novel's all about Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old grunt whose heroic efforts during a battle in Iraq were captured on film and went viral back home. In an attempt to get a skeptical American public excited about the war again, the powers that be organize a perplexing two-week "victory tour" for Billy's company that culminates with a visit to watch the Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving Day and participate in the halftime show.
Spoiler alert: the halftime show is a hot mess.
Billy Lynn manages to capture the anti-war sentiments that much of the U.S. felt once the post-9/11 knee-jerk patriotism died down. It also shows how the seemingly zealous support of American patriots tended to amount to little more than some fevered handshakes and empty words of encouragement. No matter where you stand on the issues, Billy Lynn's gonna make you a little bit uncomfortable. It may even make you question your reality. But that's totally the point.
So, go ahead, let yourself giggle for a while at the juvenile hijinks Bravo company gets into. You'll come away with a feeling that you've accidentally read something pretty philosophical…and liked it.
If you read anything about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, you're gonna find that almost every article refers to it as "this generation's Catch-22." What the what? Does every generation need a Catch-22? What is Catch-22?
Those are all great questions, and our answers are: We can explain; yes; and you'd better sit down.
You've probably heard the phrase "catch-22" before from someone who's trying to describe some spectacular piece of circular logic. Our handy-dandy Google dictionary defines the phrase as "a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions." Okay, that's not particularly helpful. How 'bout this one: have you ever heard anyone complain about the fact that they need experience to get hired for a job, but no one will hire them, so they can't get experience? That's a catch-22.
The phrase itself came from Joseph Heller's novel of the same title, which was written in 1961 as a particularly well-crafted anti-war satire. If you want to dig deeper, Shmoop of course has done the shovel work to get you started. To save your clicking finger, though, we'll get down to the point: in the book, there is a pilot who thinks war is nuts, so he's trying to find a way to get out of flying stupidly dangerous missions. But there's a catch:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. (Source.)
There are tons of other examples in the book of the Army's duplicitous bureaucratic rules, but you can smell what we're cooking with, right?
So back to your questions. Does every generation need a Catch-22? Well, we certainly think so. War is a nutty business, and for every generation that needs to suffer through war in whatever form it takes on, we need a book to help that generation talk about what's so messed up about it. You can protest, you can write blogs, you can yell at your drunken uncle over Thanksgiving dinner, but the argument that will last and appeal to a wide variety of people is probably going to take the form of a well-written novel.
Enter Billy Lynn. There are many similarities between our story and the one that Heller wrote, but Jeff Turrentine with the Washington Post sums it up best:
In his immortal classic, Heller was lampooning the military's attempt to bureaucratize the horror of World War II. In Fountain's razor-sharp, darkly comic novel—a worthy neighbor to "Catch-22" on the bookshelf of war fiction—the focus has shifted from bureaucracy to publicity, reflecting corresponding shifts in our culture. The invisible architects of Heller's war, the mysterious "they" who pulled all the strings, aimed to apply organizational theory to inhuman chaos, with predictably absurd results. In Fountain's war, once it has become abundantly clear that the Iraq mission cannot be accomplished, the only hearts and minds left to be won are those of ambivalent Americans back home—and the only way to win them, naturally, is through pageantry, jingoism and self-congratulation. (Source.)
Heller's and Fountain's arguments are fundamentally the same: that war is nuts, and that the powers that be will always be looking for crazier and more effective ways to make it seem sane. So, yes, we feel like we can safely agree with the vast majority of Billy Lynn reviewers that Fountain's book is our generation's Catch-22.
The Fabulous New York Times Book Review
Geoff Dyer pretty much sums it up.
Interview, Audio—NPR Has It All
You want a one-stop-shop for info on Billy Lynn? Check out NPR.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Every bit as overstimulating as the book it's based on.
How Billy Lynn Came To Be
This is a fascinating article on how Fountain came up with his award-winning novel.
The New Yorker Article That Put Fountain On the Map
Well, it was the article in which he was first dubbed a literary genius, at least.
Ben Fountain with HuffPost
Hey, it's nice to see that Fountain's story about his inspiration doesn't really change from one interviewer to the next.
Wanna Watch Beyoncé Work It?
Here's the video of the halftime show that made Ben Fountain write Billy Lynn. Keep your eyes peeled for the brief shot of soldiers about-facing sloppily.
Billy Lynn Movie Trailer
Kristen Stewart is in everything these days.
They Still Do Radio Interviews?
Yes, they do. And they're awesome.
The Best Cover Art
There's a bunch of different covers for this book—which is impressive, seeing as it's only been out for a few years—but we can all agree this is the best one.
The Halftime Show
Compare the imagery from the movie to the actual 2004 Thanksgiving Halftime Show video.
Gotta see the author himself.