How long does it take for a great novel to emerge from a conflict? About 10 years it seems. Which explains why two new book set against the Iraq war are worth your precious reading time.
Erich Maria Remarque set the benchmark at 10 years with All Quiet on the Western Front, written in 1928.
It took Joseph Heller eight years to start (then eight years to write) Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Second World War masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five wasn’t published until 1969.
Though there have always been outliers - Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead was written in 1948, and of course 9/11 inspired a quick flurry of novels that prompted an answering cry of “too soon”.
It’s been almost 10 years since the Iraq War began - UK and US forces entered on 20 March, 2003 - and, sure enough, a couple of significant American novels are now falling in.
First up is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - a searing satire following a company of soldiers on a single day, during which they are guests of honour at a Dallas Cowboys football game.
As the “heroes” of a widely reported firefight,the men are paraded around the ground in front of fans, journalists and sponsors and are invited to appear in a half-time show with Destiny’s Child.
Meanwhile in the shadows, a film producer attempts to ink the deal on the Hollywood version of their story (which, much to their disdain, may involve one of them being played by Hilary Swank).
Fountain, who got the idea from a Thanksgiving game he attended in 2004, exploits the humour of having a bunch of uniformed hoodlums trying — sometimes not very hard - to play nice in the heavily media-orchestrated scrum (in one funny episode, two of the Bravo Company boys lose control while play-fighting in the Dallas Cowboys merchandise store).
He also conveys brilliantly the hollowness of the endless expressions of gratitude and talk of “terrRr” and “double y’im dees” to which the soldiers are subjected. As the agendas of the corporate forces at work become more apparent, you start to wonder who the real animals are.
Later in the year comes The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a former machine gunner in Iraq, now a poetry fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Powers writes more meditatively about a soldier’s difficult return home from war, intercut with flashbacks of the fate of a fallen friend (a motif also used by Fountain).
While Powers’ book lacks a certain bite, the writing has a lyricism and intensity that is at times hypnotic, and obviously worked on the British publisher, who took just 24 hours to snap it up.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre) is out on 6 September
Illustration by Peter Strain