BEN Fountain’s debut novel is being called a ‘Catch-22’ for Iraq. But the road to success was a long one, he tells Chitra Ramaswamy
The year is 2005, and the country is America. George W Bush has recently won a second term as president. It’s been four years since 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s been two years since the invasion of Iraq. America is in a state of heightened patriotism, heightened paranoia, and heightened security. And on Thanksgiving in Dallas, Texas, an unpublished writer in his forties called Ben Fountain is watching TV. The halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys game, to be exact.
“It was this very surreal mash-up of American culture,” Fountain, 54, says in a chewy North Carolina drawl. “Like a Busby Berkeley musical run amok, cracked open, the American id exploding out. Pop music, softcore porn, advertising, militarism, patriotism, consumerism … all that excess was there. Destiny’s Child was the lead act on stage. There were a bunch of dancers and, down on the field, marching bands, baton twirlers, cheerleaders, cadet soldiers, the United States army drill team…”
Fountain pauses for breath, or perhaps for effect. “And in the middle of all this there was a small group of combat soldiers. They were tan and lean, the kind of guys you look at and think, ‘oh, they’ve been there’. They were stumbling around and laughing while everyone else was in lock step. I thought, oh my god, these guys are drunk. And then I thought, ‘well of course they are. How else could they handle it?’” Fountain felt there was a story in this all-American set piece, and that some day he would write it. “Those eight minutes of television crystallised things for me,” he says. “I parked it in the back of my head for a few years and then I got to work.”
The result is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a boneshaker of a debut novel that is being referred to as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War. It’s a blistering satire, and a breathless trip inside one combat soldier’s head. An assault on the mind, as much as the land. “The freaking randomness is what wears on you,” Billy muses. “The difference between life, death, and horrible injury is sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random. How that shit does twist your mind.”
“When I conceived the book, it came with a sound,” Fountain explains. “The sound was this headlong rush of hyperactive talk. And that’s genuine to the experience when you think about all the things that are coming at these young soldiers, the sublime and the obscene hitting them at once. I thought let’s see what the American language can do. Let’s see if I’m up to getting this sound on the page.”
Fountain’s first book was a collection of short stories called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, the result of more than 30 trips to Haiti. It was published in 2006 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell profiled Fountain in the New Yorker as an example, alongside Cézanne, of late-blooming genius. Now his second book has been deemed a classic of American war literature, its author compared to Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. Fountain, a modest, salt-of-the-earth kind of man, is having none of the hype. “It’s kind of embarrassing to be called out as a late bloomer,” he says. “Late bloomer is another way of saying slow learner.”
Billy Lynn is a war novel, indeed an anti-war novel, with a difference. For a start, there’s no war. Instead the action plays out over a frenetic Thanksgiving afternoon back home (yes, Beyoncé does make a cameo), far away from the frontline. “For now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American,” Fountain writes. “Football, Thanksgiving, television, about 800 different kinds of police and security personnel, plus 300 million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, ‘Yew ARE America’.”
“The novel came out of a need to figure out what was going on in my own head, my own life, and in the collective life of the US,” Fountain explains. “I felt like my country had been hijacked – militarily, politically, financially, by the media. I was confused, bewildered, and at some level depressed.
“It’s an extraordinary and very serious thing to ask young men and women to go fight wars,” he continues. “If it has to be done, it must be with the understanding that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to get past the experience. It will do permanent damage. There is a tremendous human cost to be paid. Go back to the primary text of western literature, The Odyssey, and it’s about soldiers who can’t find their way home. One in three homeless people in the US is a veteran. Those are the soldiers who never made it home.”
Fountain’s solider, Billy Lynn, is a sensitive, bright, uneducated and traumatised 19-year-old who signed up to avoid prison and who, in a few hours, will return to Iraq for the remaining 11 months of his tour. He is one of the surviving members of Bravo company and following an incendiary firefight captured on film by Fox news and replayed ad nauseum, the squad are being paraded around the country on a flag-waving Victory Tour. Everyone wants a piece of these boys already used and abused by war: the Bush administration, the American people, TV networks, sports moguls, Hollywood producers. It’s an anti-war novel, no question, but is it also an anti-American novel?
“Nobody has asked me that explicitly before,” he says, whistling through his teeth. “It’s anti certain aspects of America: the military-industrial complex, the business of war, rampant capitalism and consumption. I was interested in the war experience but also in the country that made the war. You’re really seeing the best and the worst of America in this novel. I think the basic decency of a lot of people comes through, and these people are Americans. Billy is your average soldier but I want to leave the reader with the knowledge that he is extraordinary and if we lose him, it would be a tragedy of the first order. I want people to feel devastated by this book.”
I tell him that I didn’t always feel devastated. Sometimes the soldiers’ sexism and homophobia made me furious. “That’s part of the military culture in this country,” he says. “I mean, in some instances it’s just a form of discourse but there is a very real aspect to it too and it’s not one I find appetising. But I just wanted to get it right.”
Fountain is a married man with two children who in a past life was a lawyer rather than a soldier. He has never seen combat. Was this a concern? “It’s certainly a legitimate question,” he says. “You know, did you go to war? If not … what makes you think you have the right? But that’s part of what writers do.” He sighs, still not quite sure. “It can be done but you have to be very careful and very conscientious. I read all the books I could get my hands on about this war, particularly the reportage and soldier memoirs. I talked to all the vets who were willing and developed a relationship with one fella in particular who did three tours. I had to earn the right to do this book.”
His own life is a fable of tortoise-like perseverance. Fountain grew up in North Carolina and started writing around the age of 16. “Reading Hemingway did it for me,” he recalls. “It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. The clarity of those words started something for me.”
Still, he wrote very little. “I took two fiction-writing courses in college and majored in literature. I felt that I had a knack though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a talent. But it scared me. I felt it was a childish thing wanting to write and that I would forget about it eventually.” Fountain drifted into law school, where he met his wife, they moved to Dallas and ended up practising for five years. When his wife was made partner (by which time they had children) he realised his moment had come. He decided to leave his job, take care of the family, and write. “I was convinced I would never have any peace in myself if I didn’t make a serious attempt to write,” he says. “It was such a strong thing in me.” Everyone must have thought he was crazy. “They did,” he laughs. “My wife was the only one who didn’t. The law firm thought I’d lost my mind. They assumed that in six months I’d be back.”
Instead, Fountain took to the garage and started writing. He wrote every day, in longhand first, then redrafting again and again on a computer. Ideas, novels, short stories were abandoned and then taken up again. A few stories were published in magazines. A completed novel called The Texas Itch still languishes in a drawer. Eventually, almost two decades later, his first collection was published. “Sometimes genius is anything but rarefied,” wrote Gladwell in his piece about Fountain. “Sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after 20 years of working at your kitchen table.”
What kept him going in those wilderness years? “Delusion and hubris?” Fountain jokes, sounding embarrassed. “For ten years I thought things would happen if I put in the work. Then I finally sat down and thought okay, what am I doing? Am I willing to live with the very real prospect of being a failure? You know, nobody wants to waste their life.” It was a turning point in his own long half-time walk. Fountain realised that to be become the writer he wanted to be there was only one thing to be done. Keep writing. And so he returned to the garage.
“I was taking care of my kids, running the house, I wasn’t hurting anybody,” he says. “I was living a small, quiet life. And the work was getting better.’ I was beginning to take real pleasure in it. So I thought, you know what? I’ll just keep on.”
• Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is published by Canongate, priced £16.99