Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk & Green Chicken Chili
During football games, the excitement usually takes place on the field between helmeted players crashing into each other, towering goal posts, and a ball spiraling through the air. In Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, published last May, the 2004 Thanksgiving matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears is secondary to the drama behind the scenes. Billy Lynn and seven other soldiers who survived an attack in Iraq are in attendance to participate in the halftime show along with Destiny’s Child. The soldiers are famous because their firefight against Iraqi insurgents happened to be taped by a Fox News crew embedded in their unit. The video went viral and the men, hailed as heroes, were sent out on a two-week tour of the United States before being shipped back to Iraq to finish their deployment.
The soldiers tour the country, holding public events and visiting their families and President Bush before arriving at Texas Stadium, where 19-year-old Billy Lynn, a Texan who was never able to visit the Cowboys’ stadium on his own, is suddenly “deep within the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens.” Billy is about to learn about his country, himself, and love, all over the course of a game.
A few plotlines run through the course of the novel — a Hollywood producer accompanies the soldiers and spends much of the time on the phone trying to work out a movie deal for their story, Billy and a beautiful cheerleader fall in love with a glance from across a room and engage in a quick physical encounter, and Billy’s sister texts him to stay in America and not return to Iraq — but it’s Billy’s memories of Shroom, the fallen comrade who looms as a specter of the role that randomness plays in war and in everyday life, and philosophical musings about his own existence that drive the novel.
At the stadium, there are three Americas at play and three types of Americans — the “patriotic” everyday citizens unaware of what war is like and who bring Snuggies to the football game, the high rollers running football, politics, and Hollywood, and the soldiers who are fighting to protect a version of America that doesn’t quite seem to exist in reality. As he meets citizens at the stadium and signs autographs, Billy realizes that “for the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge…their homeland dream is the dominant force.”
Fountain, whose 2007 debut story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara focused on stories about Americans abroad, writes about tragic situations with humor and grace. His writing is loud — song lyrics blare, there’s heavy dialogue, actions are accompanied by onomatopoeia—but characters’ thoughts are quiet and searing, and every page of Fountain’s prose considers a world that we don’t quite want to live in but can’t escape from.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place entirely within the confines of a Texas football stadium on Thanksgiving Day. While the soldiers eat a traditional Thanksgiving feast, I came up with a dish that melded the classic Thanksgiving bird with a football-friendly food. You can use either chicken or turkey and adjust the spiciness of the dish by leaving in pepper seeds.
GREEN CHICKEN CHILI
- 3 pound chicken (roasted, poached, or use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store)
- 1 medium onion (chopped)
- 3 cloves garlic (chopped)
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 2 poblano peppers (cored and chopped)
- 2 jalapeno peppers (cored and chopped)
- 2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (plus more for garnish)
- Sour cream
Either roast or poach chicken, or use rotisserie chicken from the store. Once chicken is cooked and cooled, shred it.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large pot. Cook garlic and onions over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until soft.
Add oregano and cumin and cook 1 minute.
Add chicken broth and beans. Simmer until it thickens, about 20 minutes, breaking up beans occasionally.
Add peppers and cook until soft, about 10 minutes.
Add chicken and cook about 5 minutes until chicken is hot.
Turn off heat. Add salt to taste and stir in chopped cilantro.
Ladle into bowls, top with sour cream, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.
Source: I received this book as a Christmas gift.