This week, KERA’s Art & Seek will look at people in North Texas arts worth keeping an eye on in 2012. Today, KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks with Dallas author Ben Fountain, whose first novel will be published in the spring.
KERA radio story:
Expanded online story:
Ben Fountain may be the most acclaimed short-story writer to come out of Texas since Donald Barthelme. In 2006, Fountain’s debut short-story collection – Brief Encounters with Che Guevara – earned raves and a slew of awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award and two Pushcart Prizes.
Two years later, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote a feature in The New Yorker about the popular tradition of the young genius artist, a Wolfgang Mozart or Orson Welles. But, Gladwell argued, there’s a lesser-known, just as old tradition of the ‘late bloomer,’ an artist finding his mark later in life, geniuses like Miguel Cervantes and Joseph Conrad. Gladwell’s Exhibit A for this phenomenon was Fountain. Fountain quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988, quit being a lawyer entirely, stayed at home and labored over his ironic short stories about hapless Americans abroad until he finally became a literary star – at age 48.
So naturally, one month after Gladwell’s story appeared, Fountain’s writing goes and hits a wall. His publisher rejects the novel he’d sweated over for years. Fountain knew The Texas Itch wasn’t his best work, but still –
Fountain: “It’s like, genius, my ass [laughs]. I mean, one month you have this nice article in The New Yorker about you and the next month, reality rears its ugly head.”
It’s any artist’s nightmare — working for years on a project that goes nowhere. But Fountain says his success with Brief Encounters didn’t make writing any easier (“I’d gotten Zen about it”). Failure wasn’t going to stop him, either. He simply put The Texas Itch aside and turned to an idea he’d been toying with ever since he sat through the entire Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game in 2004 — aided by a three-martini haze. He discovered why people often gather together to watch professional football: What actually happens on TV can be incredibly boring. George Will’s famous observation that football combines American culture’s two worst features — violence and committee meetings — didn’t take into account two other features: TV commercials and endless, microscopic, broadcast analysis.
And, of course, Will didn’t address the wondrous exotica of the halftime show, a PG-rated Las Vegas extravaganza for middle America (no slot machines or topless showgirls but lots of bumping-and-grinding dancers and ginned-up team spirit). Normally, one might be able to enjoy a typically over-the-top set by Destiny’s Child — who played Texas Stadium that day in 2004 complete with drill teams, drumlines, disco lights and ROTC squads.
But Fountain notes that George Bush had just been re-elected, an event the author had a hard time fathoming since it came in the midst of an increasingly divisive and unpopular war, a war instigated by what already were plainly false assumptions and cooked information. So at Texas Stadium, all of the splashy entertainment, media-news attention and big-league sports seemed like so much feverish, sideshow distraction.
But there, on the field, amid the hooplah, was a squad of tanned, lean soldiers. Fountain spotted them because they were dressed in desert fatigues, clearly recent arrivals from our Iraq battlefields. And in contrast to all the gleaming precision around them, they were stumbling around, laughing, possibly even drunk.
Fountain: “In other words, they don’t give a damn. They’d been through something nobody else out there has. What would it do to your mind, to have gone to Iraq and then come back and be thrust into this huge fantasy?”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows such a group, Bravo Squad, sent on a whirlwind “Victory Tour” by President Bush to reinvigorate our flagging support for his administration’s war. The squad had become American heroes after a Fox News video of a brutal ambush they were in went viral — a firefight against a larger force that left one of their number dead and a second grieviously wounded. The squad members are in Dallas on tour — the last day before they’re shipped back to Iraq — having to meet and greet, pose for the cameras with owners, players and cheerleaders.
Warfare, football,Texas and big-money politics: Fountain is aware his targets may not be that new; it’s what he does with them that keeps them from being caricatures. The cheerleaders aren’t bimbos, the billionaire Swift Boater (who could that be, Mr. Pickens?) actually speaks some wisdom, the Hollywood producer isn’t a lying sack. Meanwhile, Billy wrestles with confusions over faith, love and duty.
Plus, Fountain is knowledgeable (and funny) with this territory. In his portrait of our late, generally unlamented Texas Stadium, he actually pulls out a three-page showcase on the splendors of the Cowboys’ equipment room. Honestly. And a whole chapter devoted to the intricate, kung-fu-ing, high-kicking razzle dazzle of the halftime pyrotechnics. Practically flow-charts the thing. The whole halftime feels stupid and impressive, beautiful and utterly banal — ‘just another normal day in America,’ as Billy’s sergeant says.
Still, Fountain’s well aware Billy Lynn will not be popular with many in Dallas. Or America. Certainly not with Jerry Jones. The book can be scalding — precisely because it’s knowledgeable and funny.
Fountain: “I take the gloves off. But you know there’s a point where hypocrisy slides over into schizophrenia, and I think we see instances of that everyday in America — and especially in this city.”
Billy Lynn comes out in May. Rights to the novel have already been sold to seven countries. And HarperCollins, the publisher, just increased the first print run from 50,000 copies to 75,000.
A vote of confidence in Ben Fountain’s first novel.