Ben Fountain is piling up the awards for his darkly comic first novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Ecco, $14.99 paperback, $25.95 hardcover), about a platoon of Iraq War heroes on a “victory tour” during the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game. It was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and is up for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.
Yet back in 2008, after publishing his debut book of short stories, “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” (Ecco, $13.99), Fountain was already the recipient of some unusual national attention. Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker essay about the nature of creative genius, cited the artist Paul Cezanne and the mostly unknown short-story writer Ben Fountain, then 50, as the two prime examples of late-blooming genius.
It felt “strange,” admitted Fountain – nice, but strange. Suddenly, the entire literary world was on notice that this former Texas lawyer was a creative genius whose collection of stories was a transporting work of art. And it created hot anticipation for Fountain’s almost-finished first novel.
“That’s one of the twistedly funny things about it all,” said Fountain, by phone from his Texas home. “I turned in that novel about six weeks after the Gladwell article came out. After a certain amount of back and forth, my editor said, ‘No, we’re not going to publish it, it’s not good enough.’ And so, six weeks after Malcolm Gladwell called me a late blooming genius, my editor turned my book down. So, if nothing, else, whatever delusions of grandeur really crashed and burned at that point.”
That novel was never published (and never will be, said Fountain). Instead, the shattered Fountain went to work in 2009 on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” It takes place entirely on the day of the Thanksgiving Day football game, and it slashes briskly through a wide swath of American culture: military hero worship, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Bush-era terror-war politics, Beyoncé and even a certain Texas football team owner. Mostly, it is a hilarious and heartbreaking study of the young men we send to fight our wars.
“The average age of the soldiers who served in these wars is 19,” Fountain said. “At some level, these are children we’re sending over there. … They are unformed, and they are often ill-informed about certain basic things. Their educational system failed them in so many ways. And yet, this kind of amazing acuteness and perception often comes through in the way they talk. I call it lyrical obscenity.”
Here’s a passage from the book’s first chapter, in which Billy Lynn, 19, thinks back to the firefight that made him a hero: “His chief fear up to the moment the shooting started being that of (fouling) up. Life in the Army is miserable that way. You (foul) up, they scream at you, you (foul) up some more and they scream some more, but overlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained (foul-ups) looms the ever present prospect of the life-(fouling) (foul-up), a (foul-up) so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption.”
Except, of course, Fountain doesn’t employ the word “foul.”
“At just about every reading or public event, I’ll get one or two (soldiers or ex-soldiers),” said Fountain. “They’ll say, ‘Yes, you got it right, Thank you.’ The ones who feel like I blew it, they probably wouldn’t even show up at a public event. They’ll say, ‘Ah, this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why should I waste my time going?’ ”
The story is told through the eyes of Billy, who sometimes acts and sounds like a 19-year-old, but is mature and perceptive beyond his years.
“Combat service ages you in dog years,” Fountain said.
In the book, Fountain takes evident glee in eviscerating the more boorish parts of Texas life and culture. Here’s how he describes the men walking the concourse at the Dallas Cowboys game: “They lumber past with Cowboys jerseys hanging past their coattails and their pants bagging around the heels of their boots, a fatal foreshortening of vertical line that makes them look like a bunch of hulking twelve-year-olds.”
The book has been labeled a satire on the lines of “Catch-22,” but Fountain isn’t sure the label applies.
“I actually went and looked up satire in the dictionary at some point, trying to figure out what the hell exactly I was doing here,” said Fountain. “And I think satire often relies on exaggeration to make it a success. … I know some readers will say, ‘It’s so exaggerated, so completely off the charts.’ But I don’t think it is. I was basically reporting.”
The book takes place in 2004, at the height of the Iraq War, and Bush-era attitudes are at its core. Yet Fountain didn’t start writing it until 2009 and it wasn’t published until 2012. Was he worried that he had written it too late?
“My editor was certainly worried,” said Fountain. “… She was pretty lukewarm to the idea. She said there’s Iraq War fatigue out there.”
Yet Fountain was adamant. He told her “this is the book I want to write.” And, besides, he said, “it could all happen again tomorrow.” When the U.S. is threatened, he said, “it tends to react with extreme force and aggressiveness, and, it’s not too much to say, paranoia.”
Today, he has a ready response when people say the book came out six years too late.
“My response is, no, I’m 10 years too late — I wish I had written it in 2000 or 1999,” said Fountain. “It wouldn’t exactly be the same book, but it would be the same book in spirit.”
He’ll read and discuss his work at Gonzaga University on Wednesday as part of Gonzaga’s Visiting Writers Series. He’ll be on stage along with Spokane novelist Jess Walter, whose new book of short stories, “We Live in Water,” will be released by Harper Perennial on Feb. 12. Early copies of Walter’s book will be available at the reading.
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