One of my favorite novels of the year, this book does very many things extremely well. It’s one of the best examples of free indirect narrations I’ve ever come across, with the narrative voice a seamless mix of the invisible third-person narrator (educated in his vocabulary and nuanced in his prose) and the main character, Billy (very clever and perceptive, but with little education and virtually no opportunities to develop as a human being). The meshing of these two disparate influences creates a compelling voice that solves that very thorny problem of wanting to authentically tell the story of someone who lacks the linguistic frame to do his own narrative justice. In lesser hands, all of this shit would fall apart, but Ben Fountain shows such deliberation and care in his construction that the narrative structure begins to fade from conscious awareness, even to a reader such as myself who obsesses over constructive metadata in relation to the act of writing.
It’s also a really good story, both on the level of a compelling sequence of events and in raising questions whose answers will influence some very high stakes. It novel feels like one is reading a Novel of Ideas, but one is nonetheless compelled to examine closely everything about the way we wage war in the 21st century, about the nature of the men who fight in it. This line of thought is then contrasted with all kinds of aspects of the American way of life that would otherwise be innocuous, but stand pretty stark and unhappy in the context of that particular comparison. Its a novel that has that cognitive stickiness that fills up your mind, that your thoughts keep drifting back to as you wait for the light to change.
It’s also worth mentioning that a film version of the novel, directed by Ang Lee, is currently in post-production, awaiting a release date next Veterans Day. In the novel, Bravo Squadron are being feted and courted by Hollywood types seeking to turn their group experience into a summer blockbuster, capitalizing on the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation. The satire of that kind of effort works well in a novel, but I have a hard time imagining it will work well in a film with Vin Diesel and Steve Martin. And while it’s pretty straightforward and narrative, (easily film-able, as far as lit-fic goes) some of the most powerful aspects of this book function best in novelistic form. In spite of those concerns, I think that a good director (which Ang Lee can be) could make a powerful film, something that redefines the Iraq war and war movies in the same way that Full Metal Jacket did for Vietnam -something sorely needed after the jingoistic masturbation that was American Sniper. And, evein if the movie turns out to be utterly irredeemable shit, the national buzz such a venture creates is going to get a lot of people reading the book, and that is a very good thing.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Unreservedly recommended for all readers. One of the best novels I’ve read this year.