BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK, by Ben Fountain. Ecco, 307 pp., $25.99.
Lucky for Bravo squad, the bloody firefight it won in Iraq was shot by an embedded TV team. The footage went viral, America went wild, and the boys went home for two weeks of orchestrated patriotism.
The last leg of their victory tour, a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving, provides the heart and funny bone of Ben Fountain's marvelous first novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." It's a broadly entertaining satire that takes aim at celebrity, sports, Hollywood, corporations, the media and more.
Fountain draws fresh blood from these big easy targets using an understated, almost offhand narrative voice and the barracks-crude chorus of Bravo squad, a quip machine as deadly with an arsenal of profanity as it is with bullets.
Every flag-waving, money-grubbing, star-groping grotesquerie Fountain concocts is refracted through these young grunts earning $14,800 a year for killing people and about to return for 11 months more of the same.
Over the course of about six hours, the eight men of Bravo squad split up and regroup several times, meet with corporate honchos who might finance a film about the battle, perform at halftime with a marching band and Destiny's Child, and get in a fight with roadies.
The book's hero on two counts is 19-year-old Billy Lynn, who rescued a fallen comrade from Iraqi captors during the filmed battle.
He's also the focus of the novel's minimal action, purveyor of its less-ironic thoughts, and vehicle for its rare allusions to the front line, as when the squad's toughest member seemed fine at first amid a car bomb's carnage: "It was only when they fanned out to search for the correct number of severed limbs that Mango sank to his knees in a blubbering heap."
Billy manages the miraculous and falls in requited love with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, which makes it all the more difficult to fend off his sister's recent entreaties to go AWOL. He provides the soldier's view of the home front, through eyes still callow yet battle-worn.
The patriots unnerve him: "Talking about war -- their eyes bugged out, their necks bulged, their voices grew husky with bloodlust." They can't help him in his search for "guidance having to do with death, grief, the fate of the soul." He needs to believe existence is more than "a moron's progress of lurching from one damn thing to another."
Fountain can be heavy-handed and still fun. The football game's two-minute warning gun reminds Billy he has to decide about going AWOL.
When the Cowboys' owner steps in to finance the film, he and his cohorts meet Bravo squad in a small dark office at halftime, where "everyone turns and smiles for the Bravos. 'Gentlemen, welcome to the war room!' someone says."
Author of a well-praised short-story collection, "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara" (2006), Fountain has notched another fine piece of work, one that doesn't question patriotism so much as it digs through and indicts all the layers of forgetting that rhetoric, cynicism and posturing put between the home front and those defending it.