Category Archives: Ben Fountain

Links: Move it to the Exits

Now it can be told: The inspiration for the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter in Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad (i.e., the PowerPoint chapter) was Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Speaking of: Trying to write a novel and raise a kid simultaneously? Jennifer Egan and Darin Strauss are here to help. (Well, in Manhattan to help. For one evening, on September 14.)

Alyson Hagy considers the appealing strangeness of Sherwood Anderson‘s “Paper Pills.” (Winesburg, Ohio was a series of “grotesques,” after all.)

Alice Walker keeps (or at least once kept) a pile of leaves by her writing desk: “She rustles them when she does her writing, because it makes her feel closer to nature as she works.”

When Hawthorne met Melville.

Oscar Hijuelos on inserting himself as a character in his most recent novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

Ron Currie Jr. on reading Infinite Jest: “By the time I’d finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.”

The quintessential Jamesian sentence.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction.”

Ben Fountain remembers the Dallas poet Robert Trammell.

Detailed writing advice from Maxwell Perkins (to be portrayed by Sean Penn on film at some future date) to Ernest Hemingway: “I’m glad you’re going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn’t that simple!!

Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Let’s Make a Canon

At the Reading Experience, Dan Green is hoping to launch a regular feature dedicated to critical appreciations of American fiction since 1980. This excites me for all the obvious reasons—it could supplant the generally fine but intermittent “In Retrospect” series dedicated to older works, and might even prompt me to start doing more long-form criticism, now that newspaper reviewing doesn’t offer much in the way of that. (When I started doing it a few years back, the standard word count was still around 1,200 words; these days it’s closer to 400.)

I think you and I can both agree on the usual suspects that such a new canon might include—Green’s first choice, Russell BanksAffliction, being one of them. (Wouldn’t Continental Drift be better, though? Anyway.) The list of ten books below is a hasty attempt to propose a few ideas that go beyond the typical choices. In general, they’re all books of relatively recent vintage that I admire but haven’t seen much sustained critical thought about; I’ve clanged a bell for most of them before, here or elsewhere, and I’d be excited to see a smart, precocious critic tackle any one of them.

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue
Ward Just, Echo House
Sue Miller, The World Below
Adam Langer, Crossing California
JT Leroy, Sarah
Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
Carter Scholz, Radiance
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Not a very diverse list at first glance, I confess. But as I mentioned, it goes without saying that, say, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones would be on any longlist. Who else?

Gladwell on Fountain

As I’ve noted a few times before here, I’m a great fan of Ben Fountain’s 2006 short-story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. So is Malcolm Gladwell—or, rather, he’s greatly interested in Fountain’s rise as a fiction writer, which wasn’t nearly as “overnight” as some of his press implied. In a piece in the New Yorker on the nature of genius, Gladwell describes Fountain’s long path to publication:

But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

The hard work shows in the writing. Here’s what I wrote about the book for Kirkus Reviews:

Eight powerful stories, most of them set in the world’s grimmest corners.

Well-traveled American writers can be hard to come by these days, and fewer still would go to the places where many of Fountain’s characters languish. In “Asian Tiger,” a golf pro who blew his shot at the big time gets work the only place he can—a resort in Myanmar, where he helps toxically corrupt military leaders work on their swings while they strike deals with equally immoral foreign profiteers; in “The Lion’s Mouth,” a charity worker in Sierra Leone struggles to make her relationship with a diamond smuggler jibe with her altruistic efforts to help the women who are victimized by that very trade. It would be easy enough to turn these plots into pat lectures about the injustices of globalization in general or Ugly Americans in particular, but Fountain’s smarter than that; much like Graham Greene, he has a nuanced understanding of how these circumstances affect both native and visitor, and like Greene, he can approach this kind of material with a light touch, even humor. In the title story, the narrator learns that one of his coworkers at a moving company claims to have killed the famous Cuban revolutionary, and in “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” a special-ops soldier returns from Haiti to his wife in Fayetteville, N.C., where he tells her he’s now married to a lwa, or voodoo goddess, to whom he’ll now have to devote himself on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The closing story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” initially seems to be the outlier: It’s the story of Anna Kuhl, an Austrian Jewish piano prodigy with 11 fingers who becomes a phenomenon in the classical-music world. But the author’s main theme is alienation, and the story’s conclusion proves its effects can be as savage in a German concert hall as in the Colombian jungle.

An impeccable debut collection; if Fountain can keep it up, he’s an heir to Paul Theroux.

Fountain on Papa

Ben Fountain, author of a tremendous 2006 short-story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, (my review of the book for Kirkus is on the book’s Barnes & Noble page) speaks with the Kansas City Star about Ernest Hemingway‘s influence on his work.

Several stories concern cultural collisions. Americans go overseas and find their values changed or confronted. In “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” an American soldier goes to Haiti and comes home spiritually changed. To his wife’s dismay, he has “married,” in a spiritual sense, a Haitian goddess. Why are you interested in such themes?

For me, that’s where life is lived — in these train wrecks of cultural collisions. That’s where the most interesting things happen, where our notions of reality, and what’s good and what’s bad, are challenged in the most visceral ways. … What happens to you when you run up against another reality and you keep banging your face into it? That’s when we change. Ideas don’t really change us so much. It’s lived experience that changes us.

The interview appears on the eve of a large international Hemingway conference that opens in Kansas City tomorrow. As a thorough background piece in today’s Star explains, Hemingway lived briefly in K.C., starting his writing career as a cub reporter for the paper. As Steve Paul reports, just before Hemingway headed to Europe a colleague sent him off with a note that encouraged him to have bigger ambitions for his career:

“Hemmy, old scout, if you don’t pack up a Baby Corona and shoot some feature stuff to the Great Longanbaum when you get on the front you’re just a plain damn fool. This is your chance – the opportunity of your lifetime to make the limelight. You can do it. You can do it big. I don’t want to flatter you, but I’d give a million dollars in cold iron men if I possessed your originality. You see things. You know things. You read human interest like a book. And above all you can tell it. All you need to do is to keep your confidence in the Great Hemingstein screwed up to the highest pitch.”

Sunday Miscellany

Richard Krawiec responds to the foofaraw regarding Gordon Lish‘s editing of Raymond Carver, making the case for a strong-willed editor.

Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, like every popular novel that’s about adolescents and speaks to adolescents about the things that concern adolescents, is deemed unfit for adolescents.

The Millions compiles a list of favorite short-story collections. Good stuff, but: No Faulkner? No Hammett? This guy deserves a slot on the list too.

My brief review of Samantha Hunt‘s historical novel about the last days of Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, is online at the Chicago Sun-Times site. I had high hopes for the book, but