Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Review by Daniel Brown

Texan Ben Fountain has written the best novel of 2012 to date.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an anti war book for our times; its M.A.S.H – like black humor mitigates the underlying horror of the Iraq war.  Fountain proposes that ten soldiers, currently fighting in Iraq, be brought to America for a whirlwind “Victory Tour”, most of which takes place at a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game.  Fox News has happened to catch the heroism of this group of survivors of a roadside bomb in Iraq, and thus the “Victory Tour” is a grotesque marketing and PR strategy for the folks back home.  In the course of the day at the Cowboys’ stadium, the soldiers are introduced to rich Texans at the patron level, including the owner of the team and his family; a man trying to make a film of their firefight is attached to them throughout the day.  The excesses of Texas have rarely been written to such stinging effect, and the soppy patriotism of the Texas crowd is perfectly rendered, mainly through the eyes and ears of 19-year-old homegrown Texas soldier Billy Lynn.

The bonding within the group of soldiers is stunningly rendered, as is their discipline and within-the-group humor, as they increasingly understand that they are being used as part of the day’s entertainment.  Photo opportunities abound: each soldier will be photographed with three Cowboy cheerleaders, for example.  The surprise of the day is their inclusion in the actual halftime show, staring Beyonce and her backup singers, and the noise of the halftime show, with thousands of people marching up and down the field, numerous bands playing, fireworks part of the finale reminds the men of nothing more than being caught in a firefight back in Iraq: one of the soldiers breaks down completely in the middle of the act.  Thanked and congratulated though they are, with words like courage and sacrifice bandied about through crocodile tears and mountains of buffet food, the soldiers are aware that they will be returning to Iraq within days.

Ben Fountain equates the Cowboy stadium with the Roman Coliseum of ancient times, I believe, but the soldiers are the Christians, and the Texas fans are the lions.  The novel suggests an America so out of control, and so eaten up with greed and sentimentality, that the staging of this “Victory Tour” makes complete sense in a topsy-turvy world wherein war is allowed to be thought of as entertainment.  Fountain’s tone never deviates into absurdity or silliness, nor does he delve into the black depths of the soldiers’ fear and horror: such is the brilliance of this must-read novel.


Grief Behind Bars

Review by Daniel Brown

Cincinnati’s multi-talented Dan Newman, PHD. & DD., whom many of us know for his exquisite drawings of faces and figures in the visual arts, keeps appearing in new incarnations.  His first book, Grief Behind Bars, has just been published, and in it, we follow the Rev. Newman into the world of the long-incarcerated, including those on death row.  The book is a multi-purpose one, as it is to be used by educators, grief counselors, those in the helping professions, and other professionals, as well as for a more general audience of those who have experienced grief from the loss/ death of a loved one.  Although the first roughly one third of the book deals with learning how to recognize grief, and when the aggrieved maybe considered to be following normal grief patterns, Newman also warns us of the American tendency to get one’s life back to normal, after a death, which he explains as dangerous.  Unfulfilled grief will always cause neurotic symptoms; here, his book parallels Joan Didion’s great memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Grief Behind Bars is most compelling when Newman is hired to counsel a murderer on death row.  The book does not address any issues about the death penalty per say, but only his own experiences with one particular individual seeking spiritual guidance, who is aware of his imminent death.  We learn of the frustrations of those inside and outside of the prison; the difficulties in planning a visit to the incarcerated; the tendency of these visits to drop off over time, and, thus, the extra isolation and extreme claustrophobia of these lost men.  Newman’s empathy is tempered by his own frustrations with the prison system, but ultimately Grief Behind Bars is a stunning attempt to find redemption under the most extreme of circumstances.  It is written with compassion, good common sense, and with sound advice for others in similar situations, who live with the bizarre knowledge of the actual date of someones death, and the attendant horrors of the frequent changes and cancellations of that appointed day.


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