Introductions: Ben Fountain

On March 1 at Benaroya Hall, Ben Fountain—National Book Critics Circle Award-winner and author of the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (now a film by Ang Lee)—floored us with his well-crafted lecture on what compels us to participate in the (somewhat crazy) act of writing, despite all the economic, social, and political odds stacked against those who choose that career path. SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced and interviewed Ben for this event.


By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director

I will confess to you that I don’t love football. But as people I admire kept raving about how much they loved Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I knew the book had to be something special. And indeed, it is an extraordinary book, at turns funny and heartbreaking and irresistible and insightful. The New York Times called it “grand, intimate and joyous,” and it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was on almost every top book list for 2012.

The book tells the story of Bravo squad and their two week Heroes Tour, culminating in their half time appearance with Destiny’s Child at a Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving Day. If that sounds absurd, Fountain means for it to. He brilliantly captures not only the voices of the soldiers, but also the absurdity and horror of war and the spectacle of American culture, whether describing the crowd attending the game as “a migration scene from a nature documentary,” or capturing how the fans’ appreciation and adoration feel “like verbal arabesques that spark and snap in Billy’s ears like bugs impacting an electric bug zapper.”

Perhaps just as moving to me as this incredible book is Ben Fountain’s own path.Malcolm Gladwell famously described Fountain’s journey as a writer in his 2008 New Yorker piece, “Late Bloomers.” Fountain practiced law for 5 years and then spent 17 years working steadily on his craft before producing the short story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway award and was published to huge acclaim. I’m awed by the dedication required for 17 years of writing and work, and by the beautiful writing he created.  Here, from the story “Reve Haitien”:

Through the woodsmoke and dust and swirl of car exhaust the late sun took on an ocherous radiance, the red light washing over the grunged and pitted streets.  Dunes of garbage filled out the open spaces, eruptions so rich in colorful filth that they achieved a kind of abstraction.

To find such beauty in filth and to bring it to us in such gorgeous sentences is the great gift of Ben Fountain’s writing – whether he is exploring Haiti or Columbia or Sierra Leone or a Texas Stadium or Trump’s rise and political antecedents – he brings a sharp ear for the morally complicated corners of our world and illuminates the humor, the absurdity, the unexpected beauty. Please join me in welcoming the illuminator of both unexpected spots around the globe and unexpected corners of the human heart, Ben Fountain.

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