[ FICTION ]
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
One of the bitterest lessons in Drift, Rachel Maddow’s recentbook on America’s out-of-control military culture, is that we’ve become a country that can tune out its wars. Where Vietnam was made inescapable by the draft and the protests, the War on Terror feels more like an elective, a channel we’ve learned to turn off. It’s this emotional and intellectual disconnect that drives Ben Fountain’s wickedly affecting first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (May 1, 320 pp., Ecco).
It’s Thanksgiving Day 2004. “Mission Accomplished” is a year-old national joke. The post-9/11 flag-waving has wavered. Americans need something to believe in, lest we lose interest in the wars altogether (which we eventually will).
Cue the young, drunk boys of Bravo Company, Marines deployed on a U.S.-spanning, morale-boosting public-relations campaign after an embedded Fox News camera catches them behaving heroically during a firefight in Iraq. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn and the rest of the surviving Bravos have one last whistle stop before they’re due back in Baghdad: a redonkulous walk-on during the halftime show at a Cowboys-Bears game, sandwiched between Destiny’s Child and fireworks. It’s absurd. It’s over-the-top. It’s totally the sort of PR stunt you could imagine the Bush administration dreaming up.
Billy Lynn has courted some Catch-22 comparisons, and they’re well-earned. Fountain is a whiz at lining up plausible inanities and gut-twisting truths for the Bravos to suffer through: The agent who swears he’s super close to selling their story to Hollywood (one catch — Hilary Swank has to play Billy). The PTSD-triggering fireworks. The countless run-ins with everyday citizens, whose dull support-the-troops patriotism manifests as slurred buzzwords on mostly blank pages: “double y’im dees,” “nina leven,” “terrRist,” etc. Apparently, both sides have learned to tune each other out. —Patrick Rapa
[ HISTORICAL FICTION ]
Bring Up the Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
Set in the court of King Henry VIII during his brief marriage to Anne Boleyn, Bring up the Bodies (May 8, 432 pp., Henry Holt) maps the painstaking efforts of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s consigliore, to dissolve the royal marriage before the queen can strike him down. The story’s end is well known by anyone with even a passing knowledge of English history, so it’s to the novel’s credit that the plot manages to retain a fierce tension.
This is the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy, and it’s best enjoyed after reading the first, Wolf Hall, which established Cromwell’s humble upbringing and rise to the halls of power (much to the displeasure of the noble families). In this context, Bodies is even better than its predecessor — with its characters already established, Mantel is free to devote herself to the action.
Bodies is a terrifying portrait of absolute monarchy, a form of government so removed from modern Americans that we tend to think of it through a fantastical lens, if we think of it at all. But Henry is terrifying: absolutely powerful, emotionally fragile, murderous in his anger and desperate for a male heir. The haughty noble families jockeying for influence at court are just as bad, though, unlike Henry, they have to keep their wrath under wraps, operating via bank shots like aiming one of the king’s fickle rages at an enemy. In one masterful scene in which Henry is struck unconscious during a joust, the nobles immediately begin eyeing each other over the body, more than ready to plunge the country into civil war if he doesn’t wake up.
Cromwell stands apart, a banker among aristocrats, a sign of things to come. But the times didn’t change quickly enough to save him; his fall from grace and execution will provide Mantel with plenty of material for the trilogy’s final novel, The Mirror and the Light. —Jake Blumgart
[ FICTION ]
By Joe Meno
I got a bad feeling immediately upon being introduced to Jack, the second character we meet at any length in Joe Meno’s Office Girl (July 3, 224 pp., Akashic) — Odile, the titular girl, being the first. Meno sets Jack atop a bicycle in the middle of a morning commute, and says, “There is nothing the least bit remarkable about him; everything, including his facial features, is completely, hopelessly average.” Things continue like this, with Meno being imprecise in looping sentences, and Jack and Odile getting and losing dead-end jobs, complaining about roommates, collecting material for art projects that never quite seem to get under way and riding around Chicago on bicycles.
Fortunately, there’s more hidden underneath the stylistic flatness and style-section hipsterdom. Meno, who wrote so well about adolescence in books like Hairstyles of the Damned, has more in mind than making another one for the stack of novels by, for and/or about listless, directionless, vaguely creative urban people in their twenties, stuck in some nexus between Etsy and Tao Lin.
Once Meno brings his characters together and gives them things to do other than mope, their stories take on color and shape. Office Girl is a relatively simple love story: You know most of the beats and understand from the beginning how the story needs to end; the pleasure comes from the way Meno hits those beats, how he manages his characters and moments. And some of those moments are really excellent: Jack and Odile’s drift toward a first kiss, for instance, or their lovers’ conspiracy, mirrored in Cody Hudson’s naive drawings. And the heavier ideas that Meno stuffs into the corners around his self-consciously slight characters — like an ongoing struggle with sound and music that’s part of the last-act climax — give the book more weight than the mumble-y stuff it looks like at the start. —Justin Bauer
[ YA/FANTASY ]
By China Miéville
Melville. Miéville. Melville. Miéville. Given China Miéville’s love of wordplay, it’s natural to wonder whether his Railsea (May 15, 448 pp., Del Rey) came about because the feel of the two words juxtaposed got stuck in his head. It initially seems like Railsea will be a fairly straight take on Moby Dick. By “straight,” though, I mean only that the bones of Melville’s setup — a newcomer, a captain, an obsession, a dangerous leviathan — remain intact. Since this is a China Miéville book, it’s all been run through the algorithm of his frighteningly prolific imagination. Details come out the other end recognizable, but rotated 90 degrees or so.
This one-for-one substitution is visually evident from the first page, with “&” replacing “and” (an affectation that is eventually explained, but especially at the beginning made me long for an audiobook). The obsessed captain has a prosthetic arm; she and her crew hunt by train on ocean-sized deserts crisscrossed with nonsensically dense train tracks. Just beneath the “railsea” lurks a nasty underworld of big-to-huge “moldywarpes,” predatory schools of chipmunks, earthworms and other outsized burrowers. No seafaring detail is too small to be put through the algorithm: Even the traditional figureheads are changed from beautiful women to men with glasses.
Along with his love-’em-or-hate-’em verbal acrobatics, Miéville’s big strength is his ability to create detailed worlds that feel astonishingly unfamiliar even in the seen-everything sci-fi and fantasy genres. Here, he transposes Ahab’s iconic quest to a future past its prime and still backsliding; the oceans were replaced long ago with a dense, continental-scale tangle of railroad tracks, a mysterious swap that happened so long ago nobody remembers words like “whale” or “ocean,” much less why it happened.
Despite its adult-sized length and vocab words, this is a YA book; wisely, then, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge Dick jokes (for example, the white mole’s name, Mocker-Jack, is derived from Mocha Dick, the real white whale that inspired Melville) fall off pretty early on, as does the adherence to Melville’s framework. Protagonist Sham, a young orphan signed on as a doctor’s apprentice on the moleship, starts out as our Ishmael, learning the ropes of a new ship for our benefit. But once the story swerves off, it briefly runs parallel to other seafaring adventures — The Odyssey, Treasure Island, Kidnapped! — en route to a familiar destination: Boy goes on adventure, becomes man. —Emily Guendelsberger
[ FICTION ]
By John Lanchester
It’s helpful that John Lanchester is so good with introductions, like a first-class real estate agent or a gladhanding Rotarian, because Capital (June 11, 528 pp., Norton) crams a queen-sized cast into the life of London’s Pepys Road as it tracks the effects of the credit crunch over 13 months in 2007 and 2008. There’s Travis the real estate agent, who “was an avid fan of TV property programmes and felt at ease with the culture of wandering around other people’s houses and passing judgement on them.” And there’s judge Peter McAllister, thickening around the middle, who “looked like a privileged man passing into early middle age with his early assumptions and prejudices entirely intact. That impression,” Lanchester helpfully adds, “was accurate: That was exactly who Peter McAllister was.”
Neither Travis nor McAllister are important characters –- their parts run to not much more than a page each in a hefty 528 pages, meant to show a full cross-section of modern London. But this is Lanchester’s MO with all of his characters, minor or not: telescoping from the well-observed detail to a just-so explanation of what sort of person that makes him or her. Because this stimulus-response idea of character is so mechanical, it doesn’t leave much room for surprise — not from banker Roger Yount, at the center of the story, nor for his immigrant Hungarian nanny Matya, closer to the edges.
Lanchester’s sharp assessments seem actually to belong less to fiction than to long-form journalism. And this makes sense, as his last book, I.O.U., came out three years ago amidst a glut of books explaining the credit crisis. By most accounts I.O.U. was excellent, but it’s easy to see why Lanchester wants to revisit the same subject as fiction — he gets to weave in, for better or worse, hot-button subplots like terrorism, immigration and Banksy-style art. More than that, though, fiction gives him the freedom not only to pass judgment, but to deliver sentences. —Justin Bauer
[ SCI-FI ]
The Age of Miracles
By Karen Thompson Walker
Apocalyptic stories tend to feature a sudden calamity followed by heroic measures. Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable first novel, The Age of Miracles (June 26, 288 pp., Random House), is quite the opposite. Eleven-year-old Julia is as surprised and helpless as everyone else as the Earth’s rotation gradually and mysteriously slows, disrupting her life of soccer games, piano lessons and training bras. “This was middle school,” she narrates; “the age of miracles.”
“The slowing” brings huge world changes on top of Julia’s own smaller ones, but mysterious mass bird deaths and her best friend’s sudden coldness are equally devastating. We take the Earth’s rotation, the root of our sense of time, for granted; in “the slowing,” days become 30, 40 and then 70 hours long. Plants wither under the assault of unrelenting days and freezing nights. Society tries to maintain 24-hour “clock time” despite night and day falling ever more out of sync, while rebels create “real time” enclaves, trying to live sunrise to sunset.
Miracles could be called genre fiction, but like more and more mainstream novels set in speculative and strange worlds, it focuses on the people, not the setting. Like the late Ray Bradbury, Walker reveals the global situation through real, ordinary characters. Julia’s small circle is vividly drawn: parents who retreat into hoarding and adultery, neighbors who chase religious comfort, friends who continue dating rituals as their world slowly crumbles. Julia is Walker’s greatest achievement, a believable, compelling girl living a normal life twisted by abnormal horrors. Through her, we learn how people might cope with a world ending — maybe not with a bang, but certainly with more than a whimper. —Mark Cofta
[ NON-FICTION ]
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution
By Linda Hirshman
Talk about timely: Supreme Court lawyer and occasional morning-news-show talking head Linda Hirshman’s Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (June 5, 464 pp., Harper) hit shelves a month after the leader of the Free World proclaimed his support for gay marriage. His announcement inspired a barrage of game-changing supporters — from unlikely celeb endorsements to, perhaps most significant of all, the NAACP — and for the first time we’ve seen poll numbers cross the 50 percent mark in favor of same-sex matrimony. But, even with all that, has Hirshman jumped the gun by calling her book Victory?
Hirschman puts together a detailed history of the fight for gay rights, something she refers to as “the third great modern social-justice movement,” alongside those of African-Americans and women. Her painstakingly researched, thank-God-it’s-conversational story begins at the turn of the 20th century, when the “pansy craze” sashayed through the nation’s metropolises. At the time, homosexuals were content keeping their pastimes (mostly cruising in parks and carousing in speakeasy-type drag bars) secret, not yet understanding the need to rally a here-and-queer community presence. That all changed during World War II, however, when limp-wristed soldiers were denied the right to serve and, in some cases, sent home without the benefits promised to vets.
In 1948, led by gay Communist (and occasional cross-dresser) Henry Hay, the revolution was born; Hirshman recounts the whole shebang through interviews with hundreds of colorful characters involved with the struggle. She covers it all, from crucial early moments like Stonewall and the all-too-short reign of Harvey Milk to the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the passing of marriage-equality legislation in New York. With so much on the horizon, she could have chosen a more apt title, sure, but Victory is one of the most important (and readable) gay-history texts around. We’ll just have to make sure she makes a few amendments along the way. —Josh Middleton