All Kinds of Time With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Image via USA Today
Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Image via USA Today

One of the best songs written by Fountains of Wayne came from their 2003 album, Welcome Interstate Managers. “All Kinds of Time” tells the story of a young quarterback who in the middle of the game pieces it all together during one play.

Quarterback are at the center of the action. Fellow teammates on offense look to him for leadership. Either he calls the plays or relays them from the sidelines. The defense is watching him watch them as they line up. The QB can stick with the play or call an audible. All of this transpires in seconds. But it’s in the rush of the ensuing seconds between the snap and when the ball leaves the quarterback’s hands in flight down-field that 21 other players run, crash and push to either enable or stop the quarterback. It’s in these ticks of the clock where a quarterback has to scan the field for receivers and defenders alike. A half second there or a beat here is the difference between a sack or worse and a first down or better.

In “All Kinds of Time,” knowing that millions in the stands and at home tuned into their televisions are watching what he does, particularly his family around that flat screen, time slows down for him as he receives the snap. I remember reading as a kid that Michael Jordan was so good, he used to see plays develop before they actually happened. Fountain of Wayne’s quarterback seems to reach the same level.

As I read Ben Fountain’s novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” last week, I kept returning to this song. And not just because Drew Henson, one of just two non-fictional players referenced in the novel, never reached that level of ability in two professional sports. It’s because, in the hands of most writers, a character like Billy, a 21 year-old soldier with no college education who manages to have a deep reserve of natural intelligence and emotional intelligence, would seem like an unreasonable stretch of the imagination. But with Fountain, Billy’s almost preternatural internal dialogue seems like the natural outgrowth of his growing up in Texas and his experiences in Iraq with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad.

Fountain’s novel is set on Thanksgiving Day 2004, but the story is propelled by flashbacks to Bravo Squad’s time in Iraq, the doldrums during the squad’s national celebrity tour and the time he spends at home with his invalid father, his overrun mother, his two sisters and his rambunctious nephew.

In moments no longer than any given football play, but far more momentous, a few members of Bravo Squad found themselves under attack near a canal in Iraq. Other members of the squad arrive as back-up and take out the Iraqi attackers in a battle captured on film that was later aired by Fox and other news outlets, leading to the beautification of the soldiers back home as heroes. The death of one solider, Shroom, whose strong intellect and friendship with the squad’s leader, Dime, settles heavily on Billy, and the severe injury to another are brushed aside by everyone other than the squad during their national “victory” tour. The culmination of the tour is their attendance at the Cowboys game on Thanksgiving.

Without giving too much of the story away, the squad manages to make their way from the end zone and their field level seats to the bowels of the stadium for a press conference and a meet-and-greet with Cowboys cheerleaders to the owners luxury box. Spread across one afternoon, these interactions and developments flow naturally and occur in such a way that it seems totally reasonable that these ten guys who just weeks before were stuck in some god-forsaken desert in a country most Americans could barely locate on a map would be able to grip and grin with everyone from the Jerry Jones-esque owner of the Dallas Cowboys to the random fans coming up to them when recognized as Bravo Squad.

Welcome Interstate Managers - Image via Tradebit.com
Welcome Interstate Managers – Image via Tradebit.com

Getting back to that matter of moments, Billy’s life is full of them. From the situation that drove him to the army, to the reaction under fire to instances throughout the game where split second decisions, the story’s internal engine and his direction as a character are powered by these choices. And while they are made with limited life experience, there is also a presence of mind and composure that others pick up on from the start. From Albert, the Hollywood producer looking to turn Bravo’s story into a blockbuster movie to Dime who sees in Shroom’s loss a need for Billy to step up, to a Cowboy’s cheerleader whose heart is in the right place and even to the Cowboy’s owner who wants to negotiate with Albert and Billy after Dime goes bonkers, people see something special in Billy.

When writing in the past about the novels I’ve read, I have, from time to time compared certain books to Jonathan Franzen’s unwieldy “Freedom.” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” captures what it was to live in America and be an American in a lot of ways, in the closing months of 2004. President Bush had won re-election with the held of some Swift Boating of his Democratic opponent, the foundation for the economic collapse at the end of the decade was being swiftly put on credit and the unwavering devotion to a foreign policy that was killing Americans on a daily basis and doing little to make us safer at home were going at full-speed still. All of these are on display in this book. Fountain weaves all this together naturally by writing about characters who are at the center of these events and developments.

The story ends soon after the Cowboys game concludes in a Dallas loss. As the soldiers leave the game, Billy has one last decision to make. And much like the quarterback in the Fountains of Wayne song, he has just seconds to make it, but by the end of novel, for him and for us, it feels like all kinds of time.

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