The next surprise book sent to me by the fine people at The Willoughby Book Club (see their website or my Goodbye to Berlin post for more details) was a book I’d never heard of: the curiously titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

        The second book sent to me by The Willoughby Book Club        Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

By reading the blurb on the inside cover of the book I discovered that this is a 2012 novel about a squad of American soldiers who have been fighting in Iraq and who have been brought back to the United States for a two-week celebratory-tour-stroke-public-relations-exercise. I also noted that this is Ben Fountain’s first novel.

At this point I’ll be perfectly honest with you: this is not the kind of book I would likely have picked out for myself.

However, I did sit down to read it, and I am so glad that I did because this book really is quite something. And this is precisely why being given books by others can be so good, as it gets you reading things you would not otherwise read.

I don’t normally pay too much heed to the quotes of endorsement on the back cover of books, but I am going to repeat this one, as I entirely agree with it:

Ben Fountain’s novel is an exhilarating, funny, heartbreaking glimpse into the life of a young soldier and into experiences in which we are complicit – but about which we understand nothing. And it finds its mark in an incredibly personal way. The book has left me reeling. [Colin Firth]

The thing about this novel is that it is not what you might first expect from the synopsis. I could well imagine that plenty of other authors could have written a similar tale, and the book would just end up consisting of bad-mouthed squaddies demonstrating plenty of male bravado, cynicism, brutality, and hypocrisy, and the whole thing would just leave you feeling depressed. Such books would probably get called “gritty” and “hard-hitting” but in truth they would be predictable, unoriginal, and would not really challenge your thinking about soldiers and the wars that they fight.

But, thankfully, this book was not written by other such authors, it was written by Ben Fountain, and I have to say that he has delivered something far richer, more nuanced, and certainly more thought-provoking. Yes, the PR machines keep on spewing out their spin. Yes, the rich and powerful merely use the poor soldiers to serve their own ends. And yes, the whole system is shown to be pretty corrupt. And yet there is also great humanity displayed in these pages.

Oh my people.

This is a novel that deals head-on with the problematic issue of Western countries sending their troops to fight abroad, but as another of the quotes on the back of the book points out: Instead of skewering the military … it skewers the society responsible for sending it to war. Here Billy and his buddies really are just pawns in the game, with no say over what they have to do and where they have to go – either when they are on duty in Iraq or, as it turns out, when they are on their heroes’ tour back in America.

As Billy and his fellow soldiers travel the country in a whirlwind of interviews, hand-shaking, and photo opportunities we get an insight into what it feels like for the men who have seen the true horrors of war first-hand to return home only to be prodded and pawed over as if they were public property by well-meaning but totally ill-informed citizens.

All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

Fountain does a great job of showing us Billy’s inner life; his thoughts and questions, his hopes and his fears, and perhaps most of all the bewildering confusion of it all. In terms of characterisation, I certainly found the protagonist here to be as fully rounded and three-dimensional a character as any I have read. And this makes Billy’s observations all the more powerful, as he tries to piece together the madness around him.

This really is a moving tale, full of sadness and (dark) humour, life and death, and truth and deceit. It certainly had an effect on me and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. I will also look forward to seeing what else Ben Fountain produces.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.