Thursday, June 20, 2013

What Did the Book Club Think of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"?

It's my feeling that an adventurous book club needs to stretch. A couple of months ago I said to the folks at the Boswell In-Store Lit Group, let's talk about a book whose main subjects are war and football. I know that several attendees were a little nervous. But Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is no ordinary novel. It won the National Book Critics Circle award as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the National Book Award. Reviews were amazing.

Despite having read some of the reviews, I was always convinced that there would be some battle scenes mixed into the story, but that is not the case. It really is condensed into this one period of leave, when Billy and the Bravo Squad are feted at Cowboys Stadium during the Dallas Cowboys halftime show. Fountain said in an interview with Teddy Wayne in the Huffington Post that he considered this, but the action scenes felt corny and predictable.

While all this is going on, they are trying to sell the film rights to their heroic battle, but though there's a lot of interest, they can't seem to find a taker. And that's what seems to tie everything together--the selling of football, the selling of the war to the studios, and the selling of the war to the American people. It's all sort of one big marketing campaign.

And the group as a whole really liked the book way more than I expected. I would say the most enthusiastic reaction was from G., who was crazy for it. She loved the language, loved the characters. It was hard for her to hear a negative word.

More typical was A., who came into the book expecting not to like it, but found herself enjoying herself, or N., who thought she wasn't going to be able to get through the book, gave it to G. who liked it, and then after discussing it a bit, was able to get into it.

It seems there is a Texas moment going on, as we read the book just as Philipp Meyer's The Son was coming out. We wondered what Texans would think of the book; could this book have been set anywhere, or was the heavily marketed Dallas Cowboy experience endemic to the plot? Well, Fountain does say the book was inspired by a Cowboys halftime show he visited, where there were what seemed to be real soldiers participating. And there was that previous novel, The Texas Itch, that his editor (Lee Boudreaux of course!) convinced him not to publish. I obviously love that Teddy Wayne interview.

I asked some of the attendees about the word pictures that would appear in the story at times. It was there thought that Fountain was trying to communicate Billy's disconnection with what was going on, fading out of the conversation when things got ridiculous. I also asked folks about the book's comparisons to Catch 22. We had some discussion about the central contradiction of Catch 22 (which as you know, was called Catch 18 and then renamed to distinguish it from Leon Uris's Mila 18) compared to the central contradiction of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk--that nobody would commit money to the film without stars and the stars wouldn't commit without money. Was it ok that I gave this away? I think it's fine.

It was interesting to read this book after finishing Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Here's a blog post about Walter recommending Fountain to the writer. They both do like to play with genre mashup, and I would say that there's the same skewering of Hollywood that goes on in both novels.

I had more notes, but with all the goings on that week and the next, I lost them. I suspect they will show up in a year or so--my apologies. But any book club discussing Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk will want to read Malcolm Gladwell's profile in his New Yorker piece on late bloomers, so at least I've linked you to that.  Adam Langer loves the book but complains about the ending in the San Francisco Chronicle. As a counterpoint, Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times says "rarely does such a ruminative novel close with such momentum."

And as usual, a green hardcover jacket was changed for the paperback. And I felt a little justified in recommending folks read Fountain's novel after The Art of Fielding. They are very different books, but both have a strong humorous element, and one would definitely say you certainly do not have to like football to enjoy Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. In fact, I began to wonder if sports fans might get a little angry with it.

On Monday, July 1 at 7 pm, we're discussing Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmann's of Westport, in conjunction with Schine's July 22 visit for Fin and Lady.

On Monday, August 5 at 7 pm, we're discussing Laura Moriarty's The Chaparone.

And on Tuesday, September 3 at 7 pm (special night, due to the Labor Day holiday), we're discussing E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, in conjunction with the Milwaukee Rep production opening later in September.

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