Tag Archives: 9/11

Spotlight on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

I began reading Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on Memorial Day.  I would say it was an apt time to read this book. 

Fountain sets the story on Thanksgiving when the surviving heroes of Bravo company participate in the halftime show of a Cowboys game.  Billy Lynn is in the center of it all.  Think of him as the quarterback of this game.

There is lots of comedy here.  Fountain also manages to give us some sober truths, too, about war, coming of age, and life.

The novel satirizes the Iraq War as well as our culture of war.  Fountain even compares our culture of war to the culture of football.  And he’s right.  Fountain’s brilliance really shines here.

But I have mixed feelings about this book.  Is he also satirizing our soldiers?  Because, at times, it seems he is.  I will delve deeper into this in my review.  But, as the daughter of a veteran, granddaughter of a veteran, cousin of someone who served in Iraq, I cannot help but wonder what our soldiers and their families think of this novel.

Great literature should push our limits.  For me, that is what Fountain does.  I love it, but, at times, I’m disturbed.  If you have read this book, did any of you feel this way?



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Christopher Bollen Knows How To Set The Mood

Christopher Bollen, Lightning People (Soft Skull Press; 368 pages; $25).


            Despite what many readers think, debut novels are not easy to write.  Common mistakes freshman authors make run the gamut from implausible storylines to stock characters to awkward dialogue to clumsy organization.  A good editor helps, but often a first-time novelist either has that certain something or he does not.  That kind of talent cannot be taught; it is innate.  Christopher Bollen proves with his debut novel Lightning People that he has that magic and then some.


Setting is not everything, but place ranks high on this reviewer’s list of what can turn a good book into a great one.  Bollen lives in New York City; thus, he knows the city well and it shows.  From the very first page, Bollen knows how to set the mood.


Bollen opens his novel with a very real phenomenon: lightning strikes.  Through his protagonist, Joseph Guiteau, Bollen writes, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen.  What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….”

To read more of this article, please go here.

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From Manolo to Gitmo

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry (Viking; 302 pages; $26.95).


In Alex Gilvarry’s first novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, his main character, Boyet Hernandez, is accused of terrorism and thrown into Guantánamo Bay.  The kicker is that Boy is a fashion designer from the Philippines who loves America and would never even hurt a fly.  Gilvarry uses irony and absurdity in his timely debut, while at the same time he shows the injustice of detaining and imprisoning many so-called “enemy” combatants who are anything but. Everything leads up to the “Overwhelming Event,” when government officials burst into his apartment in the middle of the night.

For the first 274 pages, Boy presents us a memoir of his time in New York City, the capital of the fashion world, and how he became a prisoner at Gitmo.   Boy, though, assures us he would never “raise a hand in anger against America.”  He loves America, “the golden bastard.”  It is, he surmises, where he is born again, “propelled through the duct of JFK International, out the rotating doors, push, push, dripping a post-U.S. Customs sweat” down his back, and “slithering out” on his feet on a curb in Queens.  Even after he is unfairly imprisoned, Boy still loves America and Americans: “And even after the torment they’ve put me through—tossing me into this little cell in No Man’s Land—would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart?”

Gilvarry gives us wonderful foreshadowing when Boy arrives in New York on September 13, 2002, exactly one year and two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Boy seeks out the Statue of Liberty, that New York landmark symbolic of freedom for all.  His spirits slump when he sees “she was in mourning.”  A “black veil” covers the face of Lady Liberty.  The Statue of Liberty is undergoing restoration at the time of Boy’s arrival and is closed.  Therefore, Boy does not see her in all her glory.  She does not welcome him as he thinks she will.  This does not bode well for Boy.

More than anything in the world, Boy wants to become a great fashion designer.  He admires Coco Chanel and is a little jealous of Philip Tang, his rival back in fashion school in the Philippines who has made quite a name for himself in fashion.  Boy’s problem is that he has little money.  He meets a man in the same building he lives in, Ahmed Qureshi, who tells Boy that he is from Canada.  Qureshi asks Boy to make two suits for him; Qureshi likes the suits so much that he offers to provide Boy the capital he needs to start his own business: (B)oy.  Of course, Boy accepts.  Ultimately, Boy succeeds; his business thrives and anybody who is anyone wants to wear his clothes.

Gilvarry shows us the innocence of Boy, even in a city like New York.  Boy does not question where Qureshi gets his money.  When Qureshi obviously makes things up to explain away his business ventures, Boy accepts.  Boy desperately needs the money, you see, and how Qureshi gets it is of little interest to him.

One day, Boy goes to Qureshi’s.  He needs yet more money because Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman order a new line.  Qureshi has bags and bags of fertilizer in his apartment.  This would certainly tip me off, but not Boy.  It is almost comical how he does not see what is right under his nose.  Boy explains, “Now from the perspective of an innocent man—my perspective—there was nothing too unusual about this.  Ahmed always had things in bulk coming and going.”

Imagine Boy’s surprise when Qureshi is picked up for being an arms dealer!  But Gilvarry takes it even further.  Qureshi tries to save himself.  He is not a terrorist, he is not planning on blowing up America, oh no. Qureshi instead accuses Boy and tells the government that Boy is behind it all.  Qureshi claims Boy is masquerading as a fashion designer so he can blow up everyone during Fashion Week.  That Boy’s publicist is named Ben Laden does not help matters either.

And so it happens–in the middle of the night, government officials come for Boy.  They put a black bag over his head and do not ask questions.  Within just a few days, authorities have Boy in prison in No Man’s Land in Gitmo.  His cries of innocence fall on deaf ears.  His captors are convinced that Boy is lying and is, in fact, the mastermind of a proposed terrorist plot.  There is a lot of hilarity here, especially when Boy’s ex writes a play about him, starring Lou Diamond Phillips.

If the plot sounds absurd to you, that is the point.  The story is absurd and mirrors our recent history when this very thing occurred.  Gilvarry may write with irreverence but he also makes a statement, and a very strong one at that.  His use of satire works well here.  Boy, a diminutive fashion designer from the Philippines, who loves America, a terrorist?  The premise is almost laughable, but, in Gilvarry’s hands, it becomes more than simple comedy.  Boy symbolizes those non-enemy combatants thrown into prison and left there unjustly and without cause.  Gilvarry is not ridiculing the War on Terror; instead, he shows us how foolish our own government is to hunt down people like Boy when real terrorists run around freely.

Because Gilvarry structures his novel as a memoir, the book has all the elements of a real memoir: an introduction, footnotes, and an afterword.  Boy’s voice stops at page 274, and Gil Johannessen’s takes over.  Johannessen is the editor of Boy’s book.  I find I do not like the end of the book.  I miss Boy’s distinctive voice.  I do not know Johannessen; I do not trust him like I trust Boy; I do not connect with him like I connect with Boy.

Johannessen tells the rest of Boy’s story.  I wish Gilvarry had not chosen to end like this.  In the afterword, Boy has changed.  He has returned to Manila and is cross-dressing in an attempt to confuse anyone who might be following him.  Boy has been through a lot, and Gilvarry shows us how paranoid and afraid Boy has become.  He is not the same man who cut off the sleeves of his orange jumpsuit to make it more fashionable.

Although I do not care for the end, it does nothing to dampen my spirit for this timely debut.  Gilvarry proves he is an up-and-coming author with From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.


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Coincidence or Fate?: “The Lightning People” by Christopher Bollen

The men in Joseph Guiteau’s family all met a tragic fate at the young age of thirty-four. Guiteau fled his Cincinnati, Ohio, home in an attempt to escape his tragic family history. He moved to New York City and became an actor. His thirty-fourth birthday is fast approaching in Christopher Bollen’s debut novel The Lightning People.

Bollen’s New York City is a metropolis transformed by the World Trade Center attacks, and his characters still bear the scars of that terrible day. The loss of the towers even affects the weather. Midwesterners transplanted to Manhattan are dying from lightning strikes. Guiteau believes he knows why, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen. What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….” The towers served as lightning rods. Without them as protection, lightning is striking many young men and women, primarily from the Midwest. Is this coincidence or fate?

One thing you should know about Guiteau is that he is a conspiracy theorist, a trait he picked up from his mother, an American history professor. Guiteau goes to meetings where he meets others of his kind and where he discusses old and new theories. During a meeting, he meets a mysterious woman with a strange story of her own. Ultimately, their fates are intertwined. Bollen introduces other characters, as well. Guiteau marries Del, a snake expert at the Bronx Zoo so she can become a United States citizen. Del has a tragic history of her own; her former boyfriend was killed years earlier in a car accident. She then became involved with Raj, the brother of her best friend and college roommate, Madi. William, Guiteau’s actor friend, completes the circle. All Bollen’s characters have their own mini-dramas, making for several intriguing sub-plots that lead a suspenseful feel to the story. The Lightning People truly is a plot-driven novel.

Employing themes such as coincidence vs. fate, multiculturalism, love, and betrayal, Bollen creates complex, believable characters with the practice of a seasoned novelist. This does not feel like a first novel. He skillfully intersects multiple lives in shocking ways. Critics have compared the novel to the movie Crash, set in Los Angeles. However, I feel Bollen’s New York City works even better than LA to explore traversing lives. New York is built up, while LA is sprawling. New Yorkers primarily walk wherever they go, while people in LA drive. Interconnecting characters have a better chance of coming into contact in a city like New York than they would in LA. Bollen also gives readers fascinating facts about snakes. I do sense a sequel involving Del and snake research or at least I hope so (Christopher Bollen, are you reading this?)

Will Guiteau die at thirty-four or will he be the first to escape his fate? That is something for readers to find out themselves. My only criticism is that the fates of the characters are all foregone conclusions. The reader will understand what I mean, I suspect, after reading the novel. The true beauty is how Bollen tells the story. Overall, it is an astounding first novel with brilliant plot development and superbly crafted characters. Bollen does not seem like a first-time novelist. Keep your eye on him, dear reader, for he’s going places.

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