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4 truly American novels

Just in time for the Fourth of July, here's a roundup of four novels about Americans of different eras who strike out to seek their fortunes.

By Yvonne Zipp, Monitor fiction critic

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1. 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk,' by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn was given a choice by a judge: Go to prison or go to Iraq. Billy took Iraq. 

Now 19, Spc. Lynn and seven other members of Bravo Company are back in Texas, as part of a Pentagon-mandated P.R. tour. An embedded Fox reporter caught a firefight on film, and Lynn and the others are now the only good news about the war out there.

“One nation, two weeks, eight American heroes, though technically there is no such thing as Bravo squad. They are Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, said squad being comprised of teams alpha and bravo, but the Fox embed christened them Bravo squad and thus they were presented to the world.”

“Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk” primarily takes place over Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where the heroes are expected to perform at halftime, after Destiny's Child. (No word on whether they get to meet Beyonce.)

Lynn, in particular – blushing, aw-shucks, and a Lone Star native – is especially popular at Texas Stadium, where he gets compared to everyone from Audie Murphy to John Wayne.

It's getting better, don't you think? It was worth it, don't you think? We had to do it, don't you think?” everyone asks Billy. “They want so badly to believe, he'll give them that much, they are as fervent as children insisting Santa Claus is real because once you stop believing, well, what then, maybe he doesn't come anymore?”

Feted for two weeks as rock stars, the eight soldiers are expected to return to the war in less than 48 hours. (They are also not supposed to mention that fact to members of their adoring public.) In between courteously listening to patriotic blather delivered by overfed Americans (Billy now hears the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “nina leven”), Billy and the other struggle to deal with the horrors they've seen and the loss of two of their team. Billy is especially grieving for Shroom, the sergeant who took him under his wing.

They also have a Hollywood producer interested in turning their story into a movie: He's billing at as “Rocky” meets “Platoon.” Hilary Swank has expressed interest in playing Billy. Billy is paid a whopping $14,800 a year, and his parents are facing more than $400,000 in medical bills, so, despite the sex change, he's anxious for the deal to go through. Meanwhile, the rich football fans want to shake his hand.

“After two solid weeks of public events Billy continues to be amazed at the public response, the raw wavering voices and frenzied speech patterns, the gibberish loosed from the mouths of seemingly well-adjusted citizens. … We are so grateful. We cherish and bless. We pray, hope, honor-respect-love-and-revere and they do, in the act of speaking they experience the mighty words, these verbal arabesques that spark and snap in Billy's ears like bugs impacting an electric bug zapper ...”

Billy has, without question, the most extensive vocabulary in a high-school dropout since Jack London. (Shroom, the philosopher-sergeant, was passing him books, but still.)

Through a haze of alcohol, Lynn tries over the course of the day to make sense of everything he's supposed to be fighting for: family, country, flag, comrades. (He also gets to make out with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.) 

Having been away for months, Lynn returns to his own homeland as a stranger, and the dissonance is both uncomfortable and revealing. 

“There was no such thing as perfection in this world, only moments of such extreme transparency that you forgot yourself, a holy mercy if there ever was one,” he thinks after a night of pot roast and double-fudge chocolate cake at home with his wheelchair-bound dad, whose stroke hasn't made him any less of a jerk; his put-upon mom; and his two sisters, one of whom wants Billy to desert.

Fountain's debut novel, after the award-winning 2006 short story collection, “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” is inspiring comparisons with “Catch-22,” and with good reason. Fountain delivers an absurdist portrait of the war and modern society painted with brush strokes laid as precisely and as viciously as a whip. His darkly comic caricature resonates as Billy tries to find someone to help him make sense of it at all. In the end, there's only himself.

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