A unit of soldiers visiting an American football game is an unlikely scenario for an era-defining novel. Ben Fountain tells ShortList’s David Whitehouse about writing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
If Malcolm Gladwell writes a lengthy article in The New Yorker declaring you a genius, you have every right to feel like one. In October 2008, that happened to Ben Fountain. Twenty years before, Fountain quit his job at a law firm in Dallas, and began to write. He wrote lots of short stories. Some were published, most were rejected and eventually, he produced a collection of them, called Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. In reviewing the collection, Gladwell’s argument was that Fountain had become a genius by spending tens of thousands of hours honing his craft. Fountain, Gladwell predicted, was a nailed-on cert to write the big one: the Great American Novel.
Three weeks after the article, Ben’s publisher told him that his debut tome of full-length fiction, which he’d been working on for 10 years, wasn’t good enough. “It was like this huge cosmic joke,“ says Fountain. “Weeks after Malcolm Gladwell says all these nice things about you, your novel crashes and burns. So how do you like that? I was like… ‘Sh*t.’”
Four years on, we’re sitting in a London hotel. Fountain is 52. He is telling me how he reacted when it all went up in smoke. “It took me years not to beat my head against the wall. But I never quit. Well, that’s a lie. For about five or six hours we were on a family road trip and I was playing around with the idea of going to business school and getting my masters in business administration. After mulling it over I was like, ‘No, I don’t wanna do it.’ Writing is the only work I am fit for so I am all in. This is it. Never turn back. No one wants to waste their life.”
So, he started again. Perhaps he just had to put in a few thousand more hours. What has emerged is Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It proves Gladwell right – and then some.
War in a man’s psyche
The lead character, Billy Lynn, is a young soldier in Bravo squadron, who, after a deadly gun battle in Iraq that was shown on Fox News, are reaching the end of a ‘Victory Tour’ that culminates in a trip to a Dallas Cowboys game. There, these young men are paraded around the stadium. They fist-bump their cheering public, are praised by the team’s billionaire owners, lavished with attention by cheerleaders, talk with the service staff, meet rich and thick celebrity sport stars and are fawned over by a Hollywood shark (Fountain says, “I think most of the people in Hollywood are about half a step above drug dealers in terms of their ethics”). The soldiers stand behind Beyoncé Knowles as she performs. They are thrust from war into the screaming boombox heart of modern American life. The book isn’t just about now, it is now. It teems with the hard truths of 21st-century living like a steak full of maggots. It tears open our idiosyncrasies, slices up our contradictions. It is a war story where the war is in a man’s psyche. It is the simple tale of a man that somehow takes in the planet. And it won’t only be important today, but long into the future, when wars as we know them now don’t exist but still rage. It is fast, written with a dizzying dexterity, traps your mind in a punishing wind tunnel. You know Fountain means every word.
“It was a way to figure out my in my head what had happened in America in those years, starting with 9/11, and the way that was hijacked by the Bush administration to use for its own purposes,” he explains. “I felt a great deal of anger, frustration, confusion and depression in those years. I feel like America went off the rails. A huge number of people’s lives were ruined or ended or were grievously hurt because of this. Americans and others. It was criminal, what happened. I was looking for a way to explore that.”
Fountain’s editor at publisher Canongate, Norah Perkins, thinks that he has written a book that does more than just make people nod wisely and agree. “That’s always satisfying, of course, but that’s also a limited view of what literature can do,” she says. “This book has disrupted and unsettled my assumptions, exposed my prejudices. It’s a rare book that can do this and make you laugh, too. It’s made me think and speak differently – more wisely, I hope – about war, about soldiers, about young men, and about America. I think this will be – like Slaughterhouse 5, like All Quiet On The Western Front – the novel that my generation – and future generations – will turn to, to find some truth about the world we live in.“
The idea first hit Fountain in 2004, when he was still toiling with the book that never was. He caught a Thanksgiving Day gridiron game on TV, where a group of soldiers clearly fresh from the fight were being engaged in the halftime show. “It was a surreal, insane mash-up of everything in America,” he says. “It’s nuts, this linking of pop culture to militarism as a way to sell a product. If you have a product, be it the Dallas Cowboys or Beyoncé, you link it to the military and the flag and by damn, you’re validated. It’s so f*cking cynical. I think that’s why I latched on to that. Here it is, right here in a concentrated form, and if I can get hold of it, if I can do it correctly, I can do something that’s worthwhile.”
What Fountain has done is skewer the American Dream to the wall. Billy Lynn’s journey is one through the belly of the strange beast that the American Dream has become. “I’m a great believer in the American Dream,” he says, “but that dream is being killed. It is being absolutely suffocated. For the past 30 years what we’ve had is free-market evangelism, Reaganomics, private-sector rules, and you see the results in the numbers. Huge income inequality and student debt. Health insurance is astronomical. If it seems like I’m slamming the American Dream, it’s not the American Dream per se, it’s the way it’s marketed by the power elite to keep people satisfied and happy. If you go along with the programme, you too can have wealth and luxury and security. That’s not the case. You can play by all the rules, work hard, and at the age of 60 you find yourself out on your ass, without a job and health insurance. That’s not an uncommon story.”
The American Dream is something Fountain is qualified to discuss, slam or do what he wishes with, as that is essentially what he has lived. He walked away from a job with stability to pursue a passion. The compulsion could just as easily have been painting, photography, golf or tiddlywinks, it doesn’t matter. He – and there is no way of writing this without conjuring the self-regarding Technicolor world of Glee, so apologies in advance – followed a dream, a desire to create. “I worked for a lot of years without any success and at a certain point I had to decide why I was doing this,” he says. “So I thought, well, I’ll just keep on. And I got kind of Zen about it. Failure, success… I’m just going to set that aside and focus on the work at this point. I got to the point where failure didn’t affect me. I mean, having a little bit of success is nice. It makes life easier. The psychological pressure certainly lifts. Your kids can be proud of you, and your wife, and your parents, and your in-laws. They can turn a different face to the world and say, ‘Yeah, he isn’t a complete bum. He was working all those years.’ But as far as doing the work itself, all those things, that praise, it doesn’t help you get the words on the page.”
Gladwell’s theory is that you can master anything if you spend 10,000 hours practising it – that is the point where you can approach something with an utter certainty that you can do it well. But while Fountain’s novel bears this theory out, he thinks certainty is not what we’re after. Certainty is the prize for the people who stay in the job they hate. “Looking at a blank page is as hard as ever. It never gets easier. It is fear and dread. Am I wasting my life? Am I going to fail? But right now, I take pleasure in it. Sometimes it isn’t going to work, but I am stronger. I take pleasure in the uncertainty and discovery. That’s where the real pleasure is: in not knowing what’s going to happen today.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is out now, priced £16.99 (Canongate)