by Tricia Khleif
It is hard to describe that inner hum of recognition, sought by every reader of fiction, when you discover a story that seems made for you. This was my experience several years ago when I came across the story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” in a Pushcart Prize anthology. (This was such a long time ago, in fact, that the piece was attributed to a “Ben Fountain III.”) The narrative felt epic: in just 30 pages of elegant and comic prose, Fountain ranged through politics, adventure, meditations on human cruelty and corruptibility, questions on the fragility of beauty, and the mysteries of human behavior. I tracked down the author’s other stories and was delighted to repeat the experience over and over. The question haunted me, simple but persistent. How in the world did he manage to do all of that?
Fast-forward to 2013, and Fountain’s biography has, in certain circles, assumed an almost mythic quality. The chief details are well known: his quitting a successful law career, at age 30, to devote himself to writing fiction; the 18-year struggle that followed before he published his first book, the story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, to brilliant reviews in 2006; the novel he subsequently wrote and shelved, alongside a previous effort, before the 2012 release of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a finalist for the National Book Award and, most recently, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful and widely read 2008 New Yorker article enshrines Fountain as a late-blooming genius and “experimental innovator” who had to toil for years in frustration in order to discover and articulate his vision. In an interview with writer Mary Beth Keane a few years later, Fountain hinted at what he was chasing after in his work: “Human experience is complex, confusing, ambiguous, mysterious. Language is the best means we’ve found so far for capturing and expressing that complexity, and, by extension, hopefully making some sense of it.”
A tall order. Mystery and ambiguity, expressed in musical, finely wrought prose, form the core of Fountain’s fiction. His protagonists are most often men and women far from home and in dire situations: an ornithologist taken hostage by armed rebels in Colombia; a diplomatic observer in Haiti watching the country crumble after a military coup; an American aid worker in Sierra Leone despairing at her own impotence in the face of continuing atrocities—and, in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a young soldier returning to Texas on a brief victory tour home from Iraq, honored for what he remembers as the worst day of his life. In the throes of crisis, Fountain’s characters are endowed—or, perhaps more accurately, cursed—with heightened access to all that is absurd and off-kilter in the world. They wrestle with questions of their own relevance as they struggle to make sense of forces beyond their grasp: politics, family life, love, war, the human capacity for endless varieties of cruelty, and for equally baffling resilience; and for the palpable yet indecipherable way that all of these forces connect.
Particularly vivid is the case of Billy Lynn, the title character in Fountain’s novel. Most of the narrative takes place in one afternoon, Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys game. It’s the end of a two-week publicity tour in which Billy and his fellow soldiers from Bravo Squad are honored for their performance in a bloody battle at Al-Ansakar Canal in Iraq—a battle in which Billy watched his friend and staff sergeant, Shroom, die in front of him. For the crowning event of the tour, the Bravos are expected to perform in the halftime show at Texas Stadium. Sick with grief over Shroom’s death, dreading his imminent return to Iraq, Billy finds himself deeply isolated from his fellow countrymen. Their excess, their customs and rituals, suddenly appear foreign. He watches restless crowds spend money in the stadium’s retail stores to quell their boredom at the slow game, and he observes that “somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached.” He and the Bravos partake in a “postcard-perfect orgiastic feed” at a Cowboy-sponsored Thanksgiving buffet. And of course, there is the grotesque spectacle of the halftime show, where soldiers march, Destiny’s Child sings and dances, batons twirl, and fireworks explode in the sky.
Fountain’s impetus for writing the book stemmed from a similar sense of bewilderment. One Thanksgiving in the mid-2000s, the author happened to catch the Cowboys halftime show. He later described the event to author Teddy Wayne as “a surreal and patently insane . . . mash-up of militarism, pop culture, American triumphalism and soft-core porn . . . I was confused,” he went on. “I didn’t have a clue about why America is the way it is, this place where I was born and had spent my entire life. I didn’t understand my own country.”
What makes Billy Lynn both hilarious and tragic, in the style of much of Fountain’s work, is this abiding gulf between Billy and his adoring compatriots. At several points during the Cowboys game, Billy and the other Bravos find themselves mobbed by fans:
There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year. For these adult, affluent people he is mere petty cash in their personal accounting, yet they lose it when they enter his personal space. They tremble . . . Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.
“The war made flesh.” The phrase, darkly funny, encapsulates what is most painful about Billy’s experience: that the war in fact is always flesh. Bodies are shot at and destroyed. People die. Billy is most aware of his own insignificance at the moment he becomes a sacred object for a vague, reverent brand of patriotism.
“What was it like?” a TV reporter asks Billy in an interview elsewhere in the tour. “Killing people, almost getting killed yourself. Having friends and comrades die right before your eyes.”
In response, Fountain writes, “Billy coughed up clots of nonsequential mumblings, but as he talked, a second line dialed up in his head and a stranger started talking, whispering the truer words that Billy couldn’t speak. It was raw. It was some fucked-up shit. It was the blood and breath of the world’s worst abortion, baby Jesus shat out in squishy little turds.”
Such moments of deep internal division riddle the story. Billy’s job on this tour is not to tell the public the truth about the battle, but rather to keep the war unreal and remote from American life. The Bravos allow untroubled audiences to partake in the cathartic ritual of honoring the troops without ever having to leave the protective shell of lavish halftime shows and fast-food stands and overpriced sporting events. Near the end of the book, Billy wonders if there’s a saturation point, “a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens. How much reality can unreality take?”
That question seems to haunt much of Fountain’s work. In his short fiction as well as his novel, the characters who build careful barriers around reality—who fail to see what the protagonists see—are often the ones who perpetuate the worst suffering. John Blair, the ornithologist held hostage by Colombian MURC rebels in “Near-Extinct Birds,” observes the farcical proceedings between the rebels and the head of the New York Stock Exchange, who has flown in to establish business links with the MURC. Watching the Americans propose, with perfect solemnity, a rebel visit to the NYSE, Blair observes that “certain systems functioned best when they denied the existence of adverse realities.” When the American delegation looks poised to leave him in captivity, he tries to make sense of his predicament and their behavior. “[Blair] could not comprehend what was happening to him, but it had something to do with the casual cruelty of people who’d never missed a meal or had a gun stuck to their heads.”
In “The Lion’s Mouth,” the central character Jill acquires a penetrating and crippling vision of reality after spending many years as an aid worker in various war zones. While in Sierra Leone, she considers all the people in the country who have been maimed by rebels or whose lives have otherwise been ruined by the ongoing violence:
[O]ver time, without her strictly being aware of it, the dead stares of the thousands of amputees had served to drain all the purpose out of her work. Those stares, the aura of hopelessness that always settled over the camps, implied that they knew something Jill didn’t, a basic fact that had taken her years to understand. They were finished, their lives were over—if not now, then soon, and this applied to virtually every other Leonean as well. Her work was a delaying action at best, a brief comfort and hope to a very small few—she was handing them a glass of water through the window while the house burned down around their heads. She couldn’t save them, she couldn’t save anyone but herself, which made her presence here the worst sort of self-indulgence, her mission a long-running fantasy.
Both Blair and Jill possess keen insight into the bleakness or absurdity of their circumstances. Yet, at the end of the day, their knowledge changes nothing in material terms. The rebels and American financiers in “Near-Extinct Birds” still control Blair’s destiny. Jill’s ability to spot her own weaknesses and misplaced hope only exhausts her and gives her a warped respect for her corrupt diamond-trader friend Starkey: “. . . Starkey,” Fountain writes, “began to seem pure to her, his career an ideal she might aspire to. There was truth in that kind of life, a black-edged clarity; more than anyone else she’d ever met, he seemed to operate with a firm understanding of what was and was not possible. Such knowledge seemed to her the key to happiness, or failing that, a way of being that might be plausible” Plausible, perhaps, but certainly circumscribed, and at odds with everything Jill has spent her life trying to achieve.
What is striking in these stories and others is that Fountain manages to find a precise idiom for the baffling, imprecise emotional states his protagonists inhabit. His prose, a mix of sharp concrete detail and well-placed ambiguity, derives much of its energy from chasing after what cannot be pinned down. “With pretty much everything I write,” the author told the Fiction Writers Review last year, “the conception of the story seems to arrive with a sound in my head. It’s supposed to sound a certain way, and part of the challenge in writing the story is tuning into that sound, finding the words and rhythms that will get it on the page. It’s always very rough at first, trying to locate that signal, trying to find the right language, and for most of the time you’re flying blind, basically picking your way along.”
“Flying blind” might well describe the way most of us navigate through life, most of the time. Fountain succeeds in capturing this condition without sliding into melodrama or abstraction. In the story “Rêve Haitien,” Mason, an American observer monitoring post-coup violence in Haiti, follows a new acquaintance through a slum in Port-au-Prince. This is what he sees:
[a] dense, scumbled antheap of cinderblock houses and packing-crate sheds, wobbly storefronts, markets, mewling beggars underfoot . . . Dunes of garbage filled out the open spaces, eruptions so rich in colorful filth that they achieved a kind of abstraction . . . A simmering roar came off the closepacked houses, a vibration like a drumroll in [Mason’s] ears that blended with the slur of cars and bleating horns, the scraps of Latin music shredding the air. There was something powerful here, even exalted; Mason felt it whenever he was on the streets, a kind of spasm, a queasy, slightly strung-out thrill feeding off the sheer muscle of the place.
Mason’s reflection, near the end of his walk, that “there was something powerful here, even exalted,” could risk sounding vague or romanticized; yet it resonates here because it seems to rise directly out of the rich sights, smells, and sounds the reader has just traversed. The images—close-packed, rhythmic, claustrophobic—neither celebrate the neighborhood’s squalor nor dwell in gratuitous detail. Instead, the language captures what is most essential and ineffable in Mason’s experience—the “spasm” of feeling that lifts the protagonist beyond his immediate surroundings even as his surroundings envelop him.
Often, Fountain’s prose seeks not so much to articulate the ineffable, but rather to recreate with exactitude the feeling of butting up against what cannot be said. He takes readers to the edge of understanding, leaving you with a sense—sometimes only a sense—that something momentous has just occurred. In the story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” the 19th-century piano prodigy Anna Kuhl transports Viennese audiences to heights of rapture and pain that they only dimly fathom. “But even,” says the narrator, “those [spectators] of sturdier, less enervated natures would lapse into deep melancholy after one of her concerts, as if they had sensed within their grasp some piece of information crucial to existence, only to feel it slip away as the last note was played.” Fountain’s phrasing conveys vagueness, but vagueness of a very precise shade: that stupefaction that comes when we are at a loss to name the forces that move us.
What adds a charge to Fountain’s language is the astonishing rhythm by which events unfold, and sometimes pile up, within the span of a sentence or two. For instance, at the beginning of “Near-Extinct Birds,” Blair, determined to carry out his ornithology research, is adamant that he will avoid being kidnapped in Colombia. In half a sentence, Fountain casually upends Blair’s illusions: “It could be done; it would be done; it would have to be done . . . Full speed ahead, and damn the politics; as it happened they grabbed him near Popayán, a brutally efficient bunch in jungle fatigues who rousted all the livestock and people off the bus.”
Fountain employs a similar economy in describing how Billy, seating himself at the Thanksgiving buffet at Texas Stadium, takes inventory of his fellow Bravos:
[A]lbert is on Dime’s right, then A-bort, Day, Lodis, Crack, Sykes, Major Mac, Mango, and finally, rounding off the circle, Billy. So how about a couple of place settings for Shroom and Lake? This is his private mental ritual at the start of group meals that he does in lieu of prayers. Another ritual: Never cross a threshold with your left foot leading. And others: Fasten body armor from the bottom up, do not start sentences with the letter W, don’t masturbate within six hours of a mission. Yet he’d adhered to all such tics and talismans on the day of the canal . . . So many omens, so many signs and portents to read. It’s the randomness that makes your head this way, living the Russian-roulette lifestyle every minute of the day. Mortars falling out of the sky, random. Rockets, lob bombs, IEDs, all random.
A semicolon is all that separates Blair, and the reader, from a disastrous turn of events; a single sentence acts as a trip-wire for Billy’s most painful memories and fears. Events, in Fountain’s world, move with stunning quickness—seamless, yet so sudden and unpredictable that they knock the wind out of you.
Much the way, again, that life does.
It might plausibly take any writer 18 years, or longer, to dial into the set of frequencies Fountain has spent his career seeking. His fiction attempts to render experience in its disturbing, terrifying, bewildering fullness. This constant stretching—to echo the unresolved complexities of living, to access what lies just beyond our vision—makes his stories at once life-like and outlandish, tapping into unexpected sources of beauty. And at times in his work, his characters achieve moments of transcendence. Thus Billy, suspecting he might be falling in love with a woman he has met at the game, reflects with unaccustomed joy that “his life has become miraculous to him.” Staring across the field at her while he leaves a message on her voicemail, he makes this observation:
[I]t makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear . . . It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself, and here is a mystery that seems worth thinking about, why this stacking of awareness should even matter. At the moment all he knows is that there’s structure in it, a pleasing sense of mental ordering. A kind of knowledge, or maybe a bridge thereto—as if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn thing to another?
It’s certainly something we can hope for.
Tricia Khleif has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is working on a novel set in Damascus, Syria.