The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp / *****

2016-06-29-1467216519-3739835-28765598I am a complete sucker for unreliable narrators in books. There’s something so exciting about realizing that what you’re getting is a subjective account of things, not an objective one; it tells you that not only are you in the hands of a talented author who’s managed to fully create a rich voice that’s drawn you in, it sets you up to engage with the book more, questioning its conclusions and events, which only makes the book more gripping and interesting. And even better is when the unreliable narrator combines with an antihero or a deeply flawed hero; the English teacher part of me finds complex, morally gray (or even dark) characters fascinating, if only for the burst of interest and uncertainty they add to a story.

So it’s really not a surprise that I loved The Last Days of Jack Sparks, which gives us a thoroughly subjective account of its title character’s final days, as written in his posthumously published manuscript Jack Sparks On the Supernatural. Jack Sparks is a larger than life figure – a bit of Richard Dawkins, a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, a bit of Russell Brand – you get the picture. He’s a journalist, but one who thrives on his cult of personality; at their core, every story Jack writes is more about him than the nominal subject. And so, as Jack started writing On the Supernatural, it should be clear: this book was more about Jack bringing his skepticism and doubt to bear, mocking everyone involved in the process.

But given the fact that Jack died while writing the book – and given how…unusual…the second half of the book gets, it’s safe to say that things didn’t go as planned. But, as Jack’s brother Alistair explains in his foreword to the book, publishing the book seems like the best way to deal with all of the questions raised by Jack’s death, and the doubts that people have raised about what happened. Not only that, but Alistair has added in some footnotes that allow him to add some “context” to things that Jack says, as well as a number of interviews with people from Jack’s book that re-tell the stories he told from a very, very different perspective.

In other words, what we’re getting is a book written by an author who’s got a personality to sell and a grudge to work out, edited by a brother who’s protecting his own reputation, and with characters from the book constantly undercutting what we’re being told.

And did I mention that it’s a) often very funny and b) scary as all hell? Because, man, is it ever both of those things and then some, particularly in the book’s wilder, less contained second half.

So much of the joy of The Last Days of Jack Sparks comes from author Jason Arnopp’s conception of Jack’s voice. Admittedly, more than a few people have commented that Jack’s ego and obnoxious attitude can make him hard to take, and that’s undeniably true; on the other hand, Arnopp’s decision to constantly undercut Jack by showing us different perspectives after each chapter gives us a hint early on that not all should be taken as literal truth here, and that Jack is far less cocky – and far more troubled – than he’s letting on in his book. More than that, it forces us to filter everything we’re reading, and question how much of Jack’s running monologue is fact, how much is bias, and how much is willful self-delusion, as Jack constantly tries to wave away things that are clearly terrifying him.

And all of that is before the book takes some seriously wild turns in the back half, as Arnopp starts twisting and turning the narrative in on itself, making connections I had never guessed, hinting at conclusions that he never explicitly draws, and making you realize just how densely plotted this book has been from the get-go, even when you didn’t think it was. Add to that some genuinely nightmarish, disturbing scares – there’s a seance in a recording studio that’s one of the scariest sequences of its type I’ve read in a long time, and that’s nothing compared to a hellish vision granted to Jack near the story’s end – and you’ve got a book that’s wild, unpredictable, hard to categorize, incredibly inventive, and so well-told. In other words, all things that I couldn’t love more if I tried.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks isn’t, as you can probably tell, anything close to a conventional horror novel. It’s postmodern in some ways, telling a version of ghost stories and demonic possession for a modern age, and using some of the tropes of “found fiction” stories in novel form. (In so many ways, it’s a great counterpart to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I read recently, and engages with similar concepts in very, very different ways.) It hinges on an obnoxious, unlikable hero, and forces you to constantly assess how much truth there is in anything you’re reading. And it goes to dark places, but finds something wholly new and odd there to do, telling a ghost story with a ghost that’s very unlike almost any other one that I know. That it does all this while moving like a rocket, being generally funny and light, and creating such a rich character, and scaring the crap out of you? That’s more than enough for any one book, and it makes for an incredible debut novel. I’m sold, Jason Arnopp – bring on whatever else you’ve got.


The Croning, by Laird Barron / *****

thecroningFor all of his influence on a generation of horror writers, there may be no writer who’s inspired more lackluster imitations – or whose followers so often miss the point – as H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft specialized in horror on a cosmic, utterly alien scale – a world just beyond ours, where angles didn’t align, where colors we had never seen might exist, and where horrific elder gods slumbered – luckily for us. They were stories more about dread and unease than anything else, which has made it more and more difficult for modern writers to mimic his style – we need our payoffs, we need our plotting, we need our confrontations, and Lovecraft had no interest in any of those.

But one of the rare exceptions to that rule lays in the work of Laird Barron, whose work is undeniably Lovecraftian, yes, but also wholly his own, bringing Lovecraft’s command of tone and unease into the modern world, telling more “conventional” stories without ever compromising on the alien, malevolent force just beyond the range of our vision. But while Barron cut his teeth on short story collections, the question raised by The Croning – his first novel – is whether he could manage that same feat in a longer, full-length story?

Oh, yes he can. Make no mistake, though: The Croning demands your patience. It will keep you uneasy for a long amount of time, even anxious, but it’s going to make you wait for the payoffs – but when they come, there’s no holding back. Mind you, the payoffs don’t only come at the end of the novel; in keeping with his short story roots, Barron writes The Croning almost as a series of eight connected short stories, albeit ones which tell a single, ongoing story.

None of which, however, will prepare you for the opening chapter, which finds Barron retelling the legend of Rumpelstiltskin as something more haunting, something darker, something more nightmarish and primal in its intentions. It’s an odd opening to a book that’s otherwise set in the modern day, telling the story of an academic named Don whose relationship with his wife constantly skirts the edge of darker, more sinister mythologies. For Michelle, his wife, is an anthropologist, and her fascination with some ancient tribes seems to have had an impact on Don’s whole life – something that he is only beginning to understand. And as Barron leaps back and forth throughout several key incidents in Don’s life, we start to understand the wider pattern, but only as we also realize that there won’t be much to be done to prevent any of it from unfolding.

Barron’s pacing here is a thing of beauty. Yes, for some readers, The Croning may feel slow and lethargic, but for those who can appreciate his work, The Croning unfolds like a nightmare – relentless, uncertain, and indescribable. Barron’s patience makes his payoffs and resolutions all the more powerfully effective, giving them an anxiety and a tension they couldn’t otherwise have. But helping that along, in no small way, is Barron’s incredible writing, which is literate and thoughtful in a way that few genre writers bother with:

Neither light nor heat could withstand it; to gaze into that nullity and to comprehend its scope was to have one’s humanity snuffed. Only the inhuman thrived in out there in deep black.

For they were the stuff of nightmares; maggoty abominations possessed of incalculable and vile intellect that donned flesh and spines of men and beasts to shield themselves from the sun and enable themselves to walk upright instead of merely slithering.

Those quotes give you a sense of Barron’s writing, but can’t quite convey what it’s like to lose yourself in his words – and, more importantly, in the nightmarish visions he can convey. More than anything, Barron’s prose builds a world – both a real one and one beyond the veil – that has a way of overwhelming you, suffocating you with horrors until there’s no escape.

In short, it’s horror for horror connoisseurs. It’s not for casual readers, and it’s not for those who can’t handle their horror unflinching, unblinking, and nightmarish. But for those brave enough to handle its pages, you’re in for something unforgettable. Just don’t plan on having easy dreams for a while.


Blade Runner 2049 / *****

blade-runner-2049-posterIt’s been almost a year since I last saw the original Blade Runner (well, the “Final Cut” of the movie, anyway); as a result, I don’t know that I need to spend an inordinate amount of time describing my feelings on the film when you can just read them for yourself. Here’s the simple version: I think the original Blade Runner is an incredible accomplishment; it’s a film that created a world unlike anything else in cinema, and while I have some issues with the film’s plotting (or lack thereof), there’s little denying the way its world lingers with the viewer long after you’ve finished. It’s also a film that I’ve never felt earned its philosophical conversations at times; while the film deals with interesting ideas, it’s never as engaged with them as I wish it was.

All of which brings me to Blade Runner 2049, helmed by Denis Villeneuve (and shot by Roger Deakins), starring Ryan Gosling, set thirty years after the original, and following up on the original story in ways both direct and indirect. Once again, we follow a “Blade Runner” (the film’s term for an LAPD officer tasked with “retiring” rogue androids that are attempting to blend in with “normal” humans), this time an officer named K., as he’s tracking down some remaining Nexus units. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t follow in the plotting footsteps of the original for long, though; not long into the film, K. makes a discovery that sets him on the path for a far stranger, more complicated mystery, one that gets right to the heart of the philosophical questions so often raised by the original film.


That’s about all of the plot that should be known about Blade Runner 2049 for a new viewer; suffice to say, the film’s plotting is more interesting and more complex than the original film, with more to discuss. And yet, for all of that, Blade Runner 2049 in no way compromises on the moodiness, pacing, and stillness of the original film, using every minute of its lengthy running time to immerse viewers in this saturated, gleaming future. There’s little chance that longtime fans are going to argue that Villeneuve has “betrayed” the original film here; 2049 is of a piece with its predecessor, spending just as much time luxuriating in its scenery and the silence of its lead, and mainstream success be damned.

What’s incredible, then, is that in some ways, Blade Runner 2049 might be even better than the original film, fixing my issues with it and somehow improving on the one thing that seemed unbeatable about the original: the visuals. As helmed by Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just the best-looking film of the year; it’s got to be high in the ranking for most beautiful, astonishing films in recent memory, delivering shot after shot that left my jaw hanging open and nearly in tears. From brilliant framing to incredible shadows to stunning use of colors, Deakins turns in the best work he’s ever done – and when you look at his credits, that’s no small feat. Words genuinely can’t do justice to the look and feel of Blade Runner 2049; suffice to say, if you’re interested in seeing it, and don’t see it on the biggest screen you possibly can, you will be kicking yourself for years to come. (Myself, I paid for an IMAX ticket, and was immediately glad I did within two shots; it only got better from there.) Mixing film-noir shadows with neon-drenched skyscapes with desolate waste lands, Deakins turns every frame of Blade Runner 2049 into a work of art that somehow equals the original.


So, the visuals measure up – welcome news indeed. But what about the film itself? How does the content stack up to a film whose simplicity invited any number of readings? How can Villeneuve grapple with some of the biggest questions of the original – such as whether Deckard is a replicant or not – without ruining the mystery? And can the film manage to not simply retread the plot of its predecessor?

Miraculously, 2049 manages to succeed on every one of those fronts and then some. The thirty years (both in-story and in the real world) since the previous film has only led to deeper, more unsettling questions about the gap between what’s “real” and what’s synthetic, and 2049 deals with these questions more head-on than Scott’s original film, with a plot that drags the film’s subtext into the light, forcing us to grapple with it whether we like it or not. It’s aided by Gosling’s outstanding performance; without getting into too much information, Gosling has a difficult role to pull off, but he does it superbly, letting K. convey so much of his internal monologue with a bare minimum of movement or expression. But he engages deeply with the material, grappling with the philosophical debates of the film in a way that Harrison Ford’s no-nonsense Deckard rarely did.


Which brings us, of course, to Ford, who appears in the film as Deckard, older and still alive. Where he’s been – and why he’s in 2049 – I leave for the viewer to discover. What’s worth discussing is how strong he is in the role, giving us a looser, more vulnerable Deckard who’s not the man he once was. That makes sense, given the nature of the story, but it’s a joy to see Ford reminding you once again that he can be fantastic in films when he’s interested and committed to a role, as opposed to the coasting he’s done in so many recent years. More than that, he makes a superb counterpart to Gosling, as we see what this job can do to those who deal in death for a living.

But as rich as the plot is, as good as the performances are, and as incredible as it looks, none of it would matter if Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t as engaging and rich as it is. In many ways, it’s more loyal to the spirit of author Philip K. Dick than the original was; it’s more thoughtful and complex in its storytelling, yes, but it’s also more interested in dealing with questions of consciousness, of reality, of what it means to truly be “alive” – and how we react when those limits are questioned and overturned. That’s heady stuff, and it’s to the film’s credit that it does all of that while still giving us a gripping – if thoughtful and dreamlike – story. In short, it’s everything a sequel to a beloved cult film should be – faithful to the spirit of the original, while standing on its own and expanding on the ideas of its predecessor in interesting, unexpected ways. It’s brilliant hard science-fiction, astonishing filmmaking, and all in all, an incredible achievement – one of the year’s best films.


mother! / *****

mother-posterNo matter what you think of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal, go-for-broke horror / black comedy / allegory / surrealist exercise / cinematic experience, you certainly can’t say that Aronofsky is phoning anything in. A director who’s almost always plunged into excess and operatic style touches with glee and abandon (the sparse, stripped-down The Wrestler aside), mother! is pure Aronofsky: stylish, mind-bending, impeccably executed, and utterly, 100% unique.

None of which is to say that you’ll necessarily like this movie, to be fair. Really, mother!’s mixed reception is completely understandable, even without taking into account the film’s completely misleading and inaccurate marketing campaign. This is a film that defies easy categorization, and one that starts off as grounded, strange drama before escalating to madness and operatic allegory without ever looking back. It’s a film that’s best appreciated as an experience, taking it all in as one would a poem, and trying to interpret it all, rather than embracing it on anything close to a literal level. And that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with – and that goes double if you’re expecting a conventional horror film here.

But for those who are open to what Aronofsky is doing, mother! is gloriously insane and  gleefully anarchic – a reminder of what cinema and film can do that no other medium can do. Even in the early going, Aronofsky’s control of staging and mood is impeccable, but as the film hits its astonishing, chaotic final act, it becomes something wholly else: wild, careening, ambitious, surreal, terrifying, exciting, and overwhelming. And, most importantly, in Aronofsky’s hands, it becomes something captivating and unforgettable – a surreal nightmare turned real, an escalating portrait of madness, mania, and selfishness.

Much has been made out of the question of what mother! “means,” which is simultaneously a compelling question and a fully inadequate way to describe what makes the film great. Yes, there’s no denying that in many ways, the film is a religious allegory, one concerned with how our relationship with the divine is still eternally selfish and driven by our own needs; that the film deals with climate change and the way we abuse the gifts of nature is all a part of that. And yet, at the same time, couldn’t it all be a scathing look at the life of celebrities and public figures, and the difficulty in drawing a line between private and public? Or couldn’t it be a portrait of codependent relationships and what happens when you invest everything in someone else and have nothing left of your own? To which I’d say: yes, and yes! Or maybe no! So much of the joy of the film comes from the way its meaning, like so much art, is in the eye of the beholder. mother! won’t hold your hand, it won’t give you a guide; it’s up to you to decide what it means to you, and really, I’ve yet to hear a take that didn’t resonate with me.

But even though mother! all but demands you spin time unpacking and understanding it, doing so doesn’t get me any closer to unpacking the experience of watching this movie, and conveying the astonishing impact it has on a viewer. It doesn’t capture Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible performance as she reacts with confusion, bewilderment, unease, and horror at the unfolding insanity around her, nor does it capture the way Javier Bardem can embody both wrath and beneficence perfectly. It doesn’t come close to giving you a sense of the film’s gloriously dark sense of humor, as scenes constantly go in unexpected directions. (The brilliant crew at The Next Picture Show podcast did an amazing episode about the way the film evokes the work of Luis Buñuel, focusing on The Exterminating Angel; I can’t recommend it enough.) It doesn’t give you a sense of the unease as people reveal their darkest sides, as brotherly squabbles turn bloody, or movements of love become all out battles to the death. And most of all, nothing I can write can explain the excitement, uncertainty, and sheer wildness of the film’s final act, which is one of the boldest, gutsiest, and most astonishing sequences I’ve seen in years.

mother! isn’t for all tastes, pure and simple; as my friend Adam said, I bet a lot of CinemaScore people would have gone lower than F if allowed. But I’m so glad it exists; at a point where it feels like almost every movie is a reboot, a sequel, or a franchise, mother! is defiantly unique – a middle finger to easily quantifiable films and a love letter to what cinema can accomplish. No, it’s not for everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Because if it’s for you, trust me, you’re in for an experience you will never forget, and a film that helps remind you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.


Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar / ****

34430839From what I’ve been able to gather, Gwendy’s Button Box started life as a Stephen King short story, before the horror maestro ended up getting stuck with the plotting. He reached out to fellow author Richard Chizmar, who worked on the story and sent it back to King, who in turn, did some work and sent it back. After a few swings back and forth, what emerged was Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella set in King’s infamous town of Castle Rock. And while Gwendy’s Button Box still has the feel of a very long short story more than a novella (the plotting here is pretty linear and streamlined), there’s still plenty of enjoyment here for King fans to be had.

The story is simple enough: a young woman on the verge of puberty is out for a morning run (she’s desperate to shed some pounds and take care of some cruel nicknames she’s gotten recently), when she’s stopped by a man in black who wants to “palaver”. (Constant Readers, no doubt, have guessed this man’s initials by now; would it shock you if I said they were “R.F.”?) The man offers her a box covered in buttons, as well as a couple of switches, and explains that the box can take care of her – it will help her with that weight loss, yes, but with so much more…and all it needs in return is a caretaker. Because were those buttons to be pressed – the buttons that seem to line up with each major continent, as well as an ominous black one at the end…well, things would go bad. So why not give it to a responsible, careful caretaker, one who could prevent such things?

This is classic King – there’s a bit of Needful Things here, sure, but also a bit of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” on display as well. But where to take the story that feels fresh? It’s to that end, presumably, that King brought in Chizmar, and together, the pair creates a coming-of-age story that finds our young heroine thriving, succeeding…but always, constantly worrying about that box, and fearing what it might unleash. Yes, Gwendy is losing weight; her grades are great, her life is wonderful…but there’s always that fear, that unease about the button, and that constant sense of pressure as to when she might be called in.

If that sounds like meaty, heavy fare…well, it’s not, really. The biggest issue with Gwendy’s Button Box is that it always feels like a short story stretched to novella, not a short novel. We watch as Gwendy grows up, as she grapples with the responsibility of the box, as things build to a couple of critical moments…but it all ends up feeling like the sort of material King would use for act one of a story, not a story in of itself. And by the time the story ends on a cryptic, uncertain note, there’s a definite sense of “wait, is that all there is?” There’s little closure, little explanation – just a strange, uncertain end for a strange, uncertain story – which is something that works much better in a short story than a novella, where we need a bit more of a climax.

Still, you could do far worse than Gwendy’s Button Box for an afternoon’s entertainment. As always with King, it’s well-written; the patter and rhythms are exceptional, and his gift for choosing the critical moments of adolescence and bringing them to life is, as always, a joy. Even better is the way he constantly gives just enough information about the box to keep us wondering, but never enough to make it all clear. It’s an engaging little tale; just don’t be surprised if it feels slighter than you’d hope, as though it’s not quite capable of sustaining all the pages in its brief time.


A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay / **** ½

23019294Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has been greeted rapturously by not only horror fans, but by more “mainstream” critics, which isn’t something that normally happens with horror novels. Normally, horror is a bastard stepchild of a genre, something that most reviewers are “above” reviewing. And in the rare cases in which a book manages to overcome that barrier, it normally does so by being so “literary” that it loses the very things that appeal to horror fans. All of which is to say, it’s notable that A Head Full of Ghosts manages to walk a very thin line, giving us something genuinely scary and creepy, but also something inventive and postmodern enough to make it appeal to those with a more literary bent.

It doesn’t take long for Tremblay’s ambition to make itself known. A Head Full of Ghosts opens with Merry Barrett returning to her childhood home, accompanied by a writer who’s helping her tell the “official” version of her story and what happened to her sister Marjorie. See, a lot of people know the story already, because Merry’s childhood ended up being used as a reality television series called The Possession, a huge hit up until…well, you’ll see. So what we get in A Head Full of Ghosts isn’t exactly an “objective” account of what happened to Marjorie and the Barretts; what we’re getting is mostly Merry’s memories, some of which, she admits, may have been influenced by the TV show, or may be things that she’s lied about for so long she’s struggled to remember the truth. And if that’s not enough, Tremblay throws in some blog post analyses of the episodes of The Possession from a horror fan, discussing the story not only as it was presented on television, but picking at all of the tropes Tremblay is tossing out.

Indeed, there’s little way to explain how much fun this book is to horror fans without getting into the way Tremblay picks apart his own influences and inspirations. Just as you’re thinking “this feels like a rip from The Exorcist” or “do you think anyone in this book remembers the story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'”, Tremblay uses the blog posts to make the allusions and references clear, laying out for all to see the DNA of the story, but also turning the book and story into something muddier and less clear. Did all of this happen? Is this all a case of people echoing movies and TV shows that shaped their perception of what “possession” was? Where does the truth come in?

To Tremblay’s credit – and to the irritation of many, I bet – there aren’t a lot of clear answers here. A Head Full of Ghosts leaves a lot open to interpretation, down to the final pages, which are filled with moments that might – or might not – change everything. That could be frustrating for many, but for me, Tremblay’s earned his ambiguity; this is a story about how we perceive things, and how motives aren’t always cut and dry. There’s no arguing about the events of the story – everyone agrees on those. What’s more up for debate is what it all means, and what caused it all – and that’s far more compelling fare.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that A Head Full of Ghosts is genuinely scary, maybe all the more so for our inability to understand why some of this is happening. Is Marjorie mentally ill, or is she possessed? Neither explanation is entirely satisfying, because neither can adequately explain some of the truly unsettling, disturbing events of the story – even our blog posts, doing their best to unpack the tricks of the TV trade, struggle on a few points. But that’s okay; what makes the best horror is a degree of uncertainty, of unease as to what’s really going on. It’s just that few books make that part of the text itself, filtering the story through unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator until we’re not sure who to believe. (It’s no coincidence that Merry shares a nickname with one of horror’s great unreliable narrators, We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s Merrycat.) All we know for sure is the horror that comes out of those primal, uneasy moments – and no explanation is going to help make any more sense out of some of it.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain / *****

1_192p19605_7One of my all-time favorite novels is Joseph Heller’s seminal World War II satire Catch-22, a vicious, funny, trenchant take on the insanity of war. So when I heard numerous comparisons between Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Heller’s masterpiece, it would be safe to say that my interest was piqued. I’m fascinated by portraits of war with a satirical bent – it’s no accident that so much of my bookshelf is filled with writings about and from the Vietnam War – and the idea of finding a modern take on all of that was super up my alley.

Having read Billy Lynn finally, I totally understand those comparisons; while Billy Lynn is very different from Catch-22, there’s much of the same DNA to be found there: a horror at the violence of war and the way it kills part of us; the conflict between a desire to support your friends and a disgust at the war as a concept; an unflinching look at the way war changes those who fight in it. But Billy Lynn has a very different primary target than Catch-22; while Heller was primarily focused on the insanity of war, Fountain wants to question American “patriotism,” with its easy platitudes, empty cliches, and pointless grandstanding that has little bearing or meaning on the conflict and those who fight in it.

Set entirely during a Dallas Cowboys football game, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows our title character and his fellow grunts from Bravo Platoon as they are theoretically being honored for wartime valor. Survivors of a battle that was captured on video that became a viral hit, especially on Fox News, Lynn and his platoon mates are on a “victory tour” around the country, which mainly means that they’re used in photo ops, forced to endure awkward handshakes and congratulatory ceremonies, and deal with an agent who’s in the midst of attempting to turn their story into a film. Meanwhile, Bravo Platoon is dealing with their own issues: an inability to fit back into the home front, a rapidly growing disgust at the disconnect between themselves and those who they’re protecting, and their increasing unease at their impending return to Iraq and the battle front.

All of which sounds like heavy fare, and in lesser hands, it could be. But in Fountain’s hands, Billy Lynn is rapid-paced, funny, moving, and just plain incredible. From the pitch-perfect depiction of every platitude every soldier hears to his capturing of the vulgar, violent repartee of the soldiers, Fountain gives us a picture of barely controlled anarchy, as Bravo jeers at the civilians who don’t understand them, leers after the members of Destiny’s Child (from a distance, of course), comments on politics, and find a way to make peace with their largely symbolic role in everything around them. Plunging us into the title character’s running commentary, Fountain gives everything a perfectly arched approach, both understanding the awkwardness of all of these events but also the distance between Billy and a world that only loves the idea of him, not the reality. Lynn isn’t some warrior poet, some complex philosopher; he’s a roughneck, albeit one smart enough to see through the pomp and circumstance and roll his eyes at the ridiculously contrived patriotism on display, and see how it’s all about theater, not true love of country.

But more than that, Fountain never lets his themes and ideas overtake the characters and the emotional rhythms of the story. Yes, this is a book about how American patriotism has become a political necessity, and a ticket for grandstanding; yes, it’s a book that’s entirely focused on how soldiers are often only thought of in theory, of how we cope with war by imagining it as a movie, and of how we so often forget our wars or only think of them in abstract terms. But even with all of that, what sticks out in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are the small moments – the trauma as the PTSD kicks in for our soldiers during an absurd halftime show, the rhythms the soldiers have developed in dealing with older men who have their own stories, the profane but hilarious banter between men who have long since quit caring about social norms, the dead-on capturing of every single cliche (my favorite is Fountain’s repurposing of 9/11 as “nina leven,” a meaningless phrase without clear impact anymore)…it’s these moments that make Billy Lynn so effective. Like Catch-22, its targets are clear, its humor sharp, its chaos perfectly controlled – but more than that, it’s the book’s humanity and heart that makes it so great.