When I first heard about this book (and Karl Marlantes' blurb), I assumed it was written by a veteran - it isn't, and that's really amazing, because this is a pitch-perfect look into a soldier's experiences.
I say that as a veteran (of Desert Storm) and an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2007-09, so I have some first-hand knowledge with what he describes. To me, the voices and actions of the characters are dead-on accurate.
It's got some flaws, which I'll get to first so I can finish strong. In my mind, the flaws are because he's trying so hard at writing something big and memorable, and it gets away from him at times.
The conclusion veers into melodrama. Up until the last 40 pages or so, I could pretty much buy the events as possible real-life occurrences. But the end features a couple moments where I couldn't quite suspend disbelief.
While the civilians he describes behave realistically, there's times when it feels very much like the author's "meta rant" against the American mindset - he sets up some characters as one-dimensional straw men so he can show his disdain. I agree with what he's presenting, but it doesn't always feel like a story - more like he's trying to inject a point into the fictional narrative. Which is fine, but not if it's obvious like it sometime is.
Most of the time, the story is told in present-day perspective with some flashbacks. Very occasionally, he switches into describing the future, and that's awkward. For me, I would have liked no 'future look' at all.
So, okay, those things threw me off.
Everything else is very strong. Marlantes called it a "Catch 22" of the Iraq War - but that's not accurate, because to me it's not really a satire. Fountain isn't over-dramatizing events (except occasionally as I note), or exaggerating things for comic effect - it feels real, not deliberately over-the-top.
Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are often treated as props by the civilians they encounter - it might seem unlikely, but it's not. When I came back from Desert Storm, I was treated nicely, of course, but as a prop for the patriotic feelings for others - nobody cared about 'me,' but they did care about their opportunity to tell me how proud they were about America, my service, the troops, blah blah blah, and then I had to hear their two-cent opinion about every little tactical decision. That disconnect comes across very accurately in Fountain's narrative.
This is what homecoming is like. So in the crazy situation that Fountain has put them in, the characters look for what's familiar - and that's their fellow soldiers.
The voice of those soldiers - all infantrymen - is spot on. This IS how infantrymen behave, especially when they're in a small group being gawked at. It's them against the world, and the fights they get into, arguments they have, flouting authority (but not their sergeant's), all ring very true.
Billy Lynn, the 19-year-old hero and main character, reminds me of some of the soldiers I met - very confident and self-assured, but not on a very deep level, like it wouldn't take much for the act to fall away. He's a hero you'll root for.
It's tough to describe the plot because I don't want to give things away. I think a reader should know not to expect some tragedy at the end that betrays your affection for the characters. There is a Hollywood subplot about a possible movie that's entertaining, and probably truthful, but I wouldn't know. A thinly-described parody of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is good for comic, and not-so-comic relief (he should have just named him). Obviously, a cheerleader comes into play.
Military readers should be aware of places they'll need to suspend disbelief - a Silver Star would take much longer to award than described here; I find it very hard to believe that the group of men would have to go back to Iraq at the conclusion of the "Victory Tour," and I wish Fountain came up with some kind of reason (even if contrived) to explain that; getting into fights in an Army dress uniform and then walking around afterwards and still look presentable would be very difficult.
But I really liked this story. I like any book that honestly tells a soldier's story. It's refreshing to read a book about the homecoming, or at least scenes at home, rather than another story that takes place in Iraq itself.
I think a military audience would really like this book, and will laugh and be annoyed at the right parts.
But I'm not sure the right civilian audience will ever read "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." It's a solid reminder, even in fictional form, that soldiers are not props for our own conflicted feelings of feel-good patriotism, which is so rarely backed up by actual deeds or service. If people have nothing to offer returning veterans but, "you know, what we really should do in Iraq/Afghanistan is..." then they should say nothing at all.