The good news keeps coming for first-time novelist Ben Fountain. Since publishing “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” in May, the Dallas writer has been showered with praise. The Washington Post chose “Billy Lynn” as one of the five best novels of 2012, just a few weeks after it was named a finalist for the National Book Award. And last night in New York, Fountain accepted the $10,000 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction.
In its laudatory review, The Post called “Billy Lynn” a “Catch-22” “updated for a new era.” The story takes place on Thanksgiving Day when a squad of U.S. soldiers comes back from Iraq to be special guests at a Dallas Cowboys game.
At a time when Iowa Workshop writers barely old enough to drink make splashy debuts, 54-year-old Fountain is hardly your typical “first” novelist. After leaving a career as a real estate lawyer, he toiled away for almost 20 years before his breakthrough success with a collection of short stories called “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” (2006). Four years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Fountain in a New Yorker essay about late-blooming geniuses.
His short fiction has garnered two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Award, a Whiting Award and a Hemingway/PEN Award. But this year, “Billy Lynn” has raised him to a whole new level of prominence.
It’s not a position that Fountain seems to crave. In September, he was part of a glittery collection of famous writers reading short essays about “resilience” at the Folger Library in Washington. He was quiet and reserved, as though uncomfortable with all the attention. But resilience is a subject he knows well.
Ron Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.