People Issue

Ben Fountain: The Voice

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

When Ben Fountain published his first book in 2006, a collection of short stories called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell promptly dubbed the attorney-turned-fiction-writer a late-blooming genius. Gladwell couldn't have known how long it would take Fountain to rebloom.

Fountain traded legal briefs for fiction in 1988. He published a few short stories and penned an early novel that he eventually ditched, but he was well into his 40s before he hit literary paydirt -- it's like a fine dust -- with Brief Encounters. Fountain reigned as Dallas' unofficial laureate after that, but rumors of a debut novel left fans waiting and wondering.

Finally, earlier this year, Fountain released Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, about a soldier who spends his break between tours being paraded around a Dallas Cowboys game like a trophy. Critics adored it, and rightfully so: It's raw and wild, "a gut-punch of a debut novel," as The Washington Post put it.

With any luck, he won't wait six years for his follow-up.

"I'm already thinking about the next thing," he says, sitting in his charming home in North Dallas, surrounded by an extensive collection of vibrant Haitian paintings. Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Fountain slowly drawls each measured and deliberate thought. It's clear he's no amateur, but neither does he take himself too seriously. He receives compliments graciously, but he's unconvinced of his place as the city's most significant living fiction writer, of his significance here in general.

"It's the nature of the beast in Dallas," he says. "If you're going to be a serious artist, if you're going to define your existence in something other than economic terms, you're by definition going to be an outsider."

The isolation can be difficult, but the unromantic reality has its perks. "You're living in the belly of the beast," he says. "In some ways I think Dallas is the most American city, a lab for all kinds of tendencies in the American psyche." It is a dagger Fountain brazenly wields, though he's loath to admit it. "I'm just somebody who's trying to see things for what they are and looking for the words to portray them."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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Brentney Hamilton