By December 2008, Ben Fountain must have thought that his years of frustration were behind him. In 1988, half a decade after he moved to Dallas from his native North Carolina, he quit his lawyer job at Akin Gump to devote himself to the craft of writing fiction. What followed was eighteen years of countless rejections and a few signs of success before he finally published Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, a short-story collection that drew comparisons to the works of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad and earned Fountain a prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award. His arrival as a major literary figure was pretty much certified in October 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell penned a flattering profile of him in the New Yorker.
Yet two months after Fountain received The Tipping Point author’s imprimatur, his editor at HarperCollins called him with bad news: the house was rejecting his first novel, The Texas Itch. “She thought it was a step down from the short-story book, which I agreed with,” Fountain says, sitting in the dining room of his North Dallas home. “But there was enough worthwhile in there, and I had worked on it long enough, that I just wanted to get the damn thing out.” But she didn’t budge, and Fountain went back to doing what he had been doing for so many years: getting up every morning, writing, and wondering if anybody would like what he did.
The Texas Itch was set in the world of big-money Dallas, a subject Fountain knew well from his lawyering days. “I remember I was at a party and someone said, ‘Who’s the richest man in North Carolina?’ And I had no idea. Where I grew up, you downplayed your wealth. You didn’t want people to know you were the richest person in North Carolina. Here, you pick up D Magazine and it’s ‘The Ten Richest People in Dallas!’ ”
The 54-year-old Fountain has lived in Dallas for almost his entire adult life, yet it still seems alien to him. “Even after twenty-nine years, it doesn’t feel like home,” he says. “Which strikes me as a strange way to live.”
But if Dallas has never felt like Ben Fountain’s home, its strangeness may yet prove to be his great subject. There are, after all, any number of novelists interested in writing about New York or Los Angeles. By contrast Dallas has few portraitists. And it could surely use another. “I think in some ways Dallas is the most American city—the focus is so much on making money,” Fountain says. “And I’ve been wondering, Is Dallas going to flatten me? If I took it on, would I be up to it? I tried to write about Dallas in The Texas Itch, and it crashed and burned.”
Which brings us to Fountain’s new novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco, $25.99). Like The Texas Itch it’s set in and around Dallas—mostly in the late, unlamented Texas Stadium. The book’s protagonist, Billy Lynn, is a teenager from rural Texas who ships off to Iraq and finds himself turned into a media hero after taking part in a firefight that is caught on video and aired repeatedly on Fox News. The Bush administration, trying to sell the flagging war effort to the American public, sends Lynn’s company on a U.S. tour, which climaxes with an appearance, alongside Destiny’s Child and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, at the halftime show during the 2004 Thanksgiving Day game.
The book’s inspiration was the actual 2004 Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game, which Fountain watched at a friend’s house. He was in a funk at the time—George W. Bush had been reelected three weeks earlier, and Fountain (who now lives a stone’s throw from the forty-third president; proximity has not made his heart grow fonder) was still reeling.
“It was beyond my comprehension,” he says. “I realized, I don’t understand my country. So I’m sitting on the sofa, and this surreal halftime show comes on, and I couldn’t believe what I was watching—Destiny’s Child slinking around and doing these PG-rated hip thrusts while these drill teams in dress blues are doing their rifle routines and American flags are going by. But in the middle of all that, there’s this group of soldiers in desert camos who are marching along with the drill team, and they do this sloppy, out-of-step about-face, and I thought to myself, ‘They’re drunk! They don’t give a damn!’ It’s all beyond absurd to them. What would that do to your head, to have gone through the ultimate reality of combat and then you’re plunked down in the middle of this shit show?”
To answer that question, Fountain summoned up a voice that’s vastly different from the modestly lyrical one he displayed in his short stories. Billy Lynn is a book about America’s outsized appetite for sex and violence and fame and money, and Fountain addresses it by allowing his language to grow similarly carnivorous. At one point, he vividly describes the cosmetically altered face of fictional Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby—who may bear a certain resemblance to the real-life Cowboys owner—as “compelling and garish, like a sales lot for reconditioned carnival rides. . . . His complexion is the ruddled, well-scrubbed pink of an old ketchup stain.” This is the sort of language that can bring a Dallas cocktail party to a screeching halt.
Fountain’s language and ambitions in Billy Lynn resemble those of Norman Mailer, many of whose books sit on the shelves of his home office. Mailer was at the peak of his powers and popularity in the sixties, a time when novelists were considered major cultural figures. Fountain knows that aiming for such status in these post-literary times is a long shot. On the one hand, Billy Lynn may get him in trouble in his adopted hometown that has never felt like home. “If mainstream Dallas reads it, I think there will be a lot of people who will resent it and resent me,” he says. On the other hand, he may not need to worry. “There’s a strong possibility that no one here will pay any attention whatsoever. To the extent that serious readers pay attention to my book, I hope they find something good in it. But that’s not the culture we live in, is it? Do books really cause waves anymore?”