For now, my new favorite book is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
This surprises me. Maybe it’s the setting — Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium. Maybe it’s the protagonist — Billy, a 19 year-old-soldier. (I have twenty-year-old twin sons who want to join the military in a few years.)
Maybe it’s Fountain’s poetic language. It startles and soothes. It makes my mother’s heart shake.
I’ve dog-eared pages and underlined lines. I’ve even posted about this book in February.
Here’s the part I will share in class this week. My students are working on a major writing project. They chose their own topics. They’ll write in a variety of forms. But, even with only a few weeks left in the school year, I still need to show them beautiful language. I still want them to work on their craft.
“Look at Fountain’s style,” I’ll say. “What do you notice just on this one page?”
And we’ll talk about word choice and repetition. We’ll talk about lists and mood. We’ll talk about intentional fragments and why an author might make that kind of choice when writing a sentence.
My students will notice many things in this short passage. There are so many things to notice.
That’s probably why I am in love with this book. Thank you, Mr. Fountain.
excerpt from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Don’t be scared, Shroom said. Because you’re going to be scared. So when you start to get scared, don’t be scared. Billy has thought about this a lot, not just the Zen teaser of it but what exactly does it mean to be scared out of your mind. Shroom, again. Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all, and as every combat soldier knows there are as many incarnations and species of fear as the Eskimo language has words for snow. Spend any amount of time in the realms of deadly force and you will witness certain of its fraught and terrible forms. Billy has seen men shrieking with the burden of it, others can’t stop cursing, still others lose their powers of speech altogether. Lots of sphincter or bladder control, classic. Giggling, weeping, trembling, numbing out, classic. One day he saw an officer roll under his Humvee during a rocket attack, then flatly refuse to come out when it was over. Or Captain Tripp, a pretty good man in the clutch, but when they’re really getting whacked his brow flaps up and down like a loose tarp in a high wind. His soldiers might feel embarrassed for him, but no one actually thinks the worse of him for it, for this is pure motor reflex, the body rebels. Certain combat stress reactions are coded in the genes just as surely as cowlicks or flat feet, while for a golden few fear seems not to register at all. Sergeant Dim, for example, an awesome soldier who Billy has seen walking around calmly eating Skittles while mortars rained down mere meters away. Or a man will be fearless one day and freak the next, as fickle and spooky as that, as pointless, as dumb. Works on your mind, all that. The randomness. He gets so tired of living with the daily beat down of it, not just the normal animal fear of pain and death but the uniquely human fear of fear itself like a CD stuck on skip-repeat, an ever-narrowing self-referential loop that may well be a form of madness. Thus all our other emotions evolved as coping mechanisms for the purpose of possibly keeping us sane? And so you start to sense the humanity even in feelings of hate. Sometimes your body feels dead with weariness of it, other times it’s like a migraine you think you can reason with, you bend your mind to the pain, analyze it, break it down into ions and atoms, go deeper and deeper into the theory of it until the pain dissolves in a flatus of logic, and yet after all that your head still hurts (114-115).
Note: The book is being made into a movie with a Veteran’s Day 2016 release date. Rarely, do I like the movie as well as the book, but I still go see them.
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015