May Book Recommendations: Billy Lynn, Home, and The Kissing List

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn takes place over the course of one football game, featuring a halftime show to honor Bravo Squad, whose bravery in Iraq was captured on tape by an embedded Fox News team. But while the members of Bravo are constantly being hailed as heroes, it’s clear that they are merely puppets. President Bush has sent the squadron on a two-week “Victory Tour” as a morale and PR booster for the war, and the quiet secret that no one outside of the unit seems to realize is that they’re going back to Iraq immediately afterward. People want to shake their hands, pat them on the back, but no one is really interested in the soldiers themselves.

Billy Lynn is a vicious satire of the Iraq War, deeply critical of the way it was used for commercial and political profit. But what keeps Fountain’s novel from sounding heavy-handed, and perhaps even cynical, is that his criticism comes through the doe-eyed perspective of the book’s titular character. Billy is a 19-year-old private, and though he’s seen a great deal of things in Iraq, he’s largely innocent and optimistic.

Throughout the evening, Bravo is subjected to a handful of meet-and-greets, and at first, Billy has no idea how to answer questions about being awarded his Silver Star. (“It’s sort of weird. Being honored for the worst day of your life.”) But he soon figures out that the only thing the crowd wants to hear is about shooting insurgents and kicking ass overseas. Similarly, the media wants to glorify and exploit Bravo’s heroism. There’s even a movie producer who keeps bugging them about the rights to their story, promising that Hilary Swank can play a major part in the film.

There’s also no shortage of humor in the book. Billy’s comrades are goofballs, and there’s a particularly funny moment he has with a Cowboys cheerleader who believes God brought them together to dry-hump. But the lasting impression Fountain leaves the reader with is devastation, because the truth is that Billy wants to go back. He can’t wrap his head around the realities of the excess and greed he sees at Texas Stadium, and the scary thing is that it’s easier for a scared, 19-year-old kid to understand Iraq than the hypocrisy of America.

TLDR: Maybe the first great novel about the Iraq War, likely the only great novel that constantly references Hilary Swank.

Home by Toni Morrison

I suppose one reaches the status of “literary giant” once she is widely read in American lit classes. I think everyone reads a Toni Morrison book in high school (I read The Bluest Eye, maybe you read Beloved or Sula). Her first novel came out in 1970. In ’87, she won a Pulitzer; in ’93, a Nobel. And as Home illustrates, 42 years into her career, Morrison is still one of the most important and relevant living American writers.

Few authors can pen a narrative with the power and economy of Morrison. In a scant 160 pages, Home unpacks themes of racism, family, and morality. At the center is Morrison’s portrait of war-scarred veteran Frank Money, who returns from Korea to find that it’s still pretty hard to be a black guy in ’60s America. Morrison’s prose is swift but intimate, even in its depictions of brutality. After beating the shit out of someone, Frank admits: “Those sprees [in Korea] were fierce but mindless, anonymous. This violence was personal in its delight.”

When he learns that his younger sister is being abused by a twisted doctor experimenting on black patients, Frank charges across the country to rescue and return her to their home in Lotus, Georgia. He is able to muster just enough strength to overcome his tortured self to save his sister. And perhaps that’s the simplest lesson of Home: that there is redemption for even the emotional victims of war.

It’s amazing that Morrison, at 81 years old, is still putting out some of her best work. Despite its brevity (or perhaps in large part to it), Home is poetic and frightening and moving.

TLDR: An important, affecting work of great literature that won’t take you that long to read.

The Kissing List by Stephanie Reents

In one of the stories in The Kissing List, a girl recounts a hookup she had with a boy nicknamed “the Porn Star.” In a moment of acute self-awareness, author Stephanie Reents writes, “This is what women did: put an amusing spin on situations that were almost terrible. It was admittedly a weird sort of bravado, but she had her friends in stitches.” This might be the best encapsulation of what The Kissing List is: a hysterical collection of stories about sex and relationships that touch on things that are actually dark and miserable.

There are a few recurring characters throughout the book, but while the names Sylvie, Anna, and Maureen kept coming up, I had trouble telling any of them apart, since they were all twentysomething girls with awkward relationships. But it didn’t really seem like it mattered. The Kissing List is thematically cohesive, even while the stories were non-linear and stylistically disparate. “Love for Women,” about deciding on a marriage proposal, employs a distant third-person narrator, while “Disquisition on Tears” features nearly stream-of-consciousness surrealism. But my favorite, “Games,” perhaps one of the more traditional stories in the book, explores jealousy (“Hayley, as the y in her name suggests, is the kind of woman who always has to be the center of attention”) and the relationship-ending consequences of being right.

I was skimming early reviews on GoodReads, and people seemed to be pretty divided. But the complaints largely stemmed from the characters being unlikable and unsympathetic. I think that’s an entirely valid hang-up, but there’s a lot to like here if you’re the sort of person that enjoys Girls (i.e., you have tweeted in the past two weeks), which I suppose could not make the timing of this book any better.

TLDR: The short-story collection Lena Dunham might write and other people would complain about.

Also Notable in Fiction:

Trapeze by Simon Mawer

Notable in Nonfiction:

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll

Kevin Nguyen is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. His writing has also appeared in The Millions, Kill Screen, and Thought Catalog. He tweets (@knguyen) from Seattle.

Filed Under: Books & Recs