I’m going to be lazy and just repost a bunch of stuff I said on Twitter.
First, I read both of Ben Fountain’s books. First I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was fantastic. It’s about a squad of soldiers that gets involved in a big firefight in Iraq (think Lone Survivor) that turns them into national heroes. The book takes place during their ‘Victory Tour’ when they’re in Cowboys Stadium on Thanksgiving, as everybody hands them off and uses them like props. The book was just very alive and the characters felt very vivid. The downside, though, is the same as the downside of Jonathan Franzen’s books (Fountain’s writing very much resembles Franzen’s), which is that the book displays an immense contempt for the culture it’s depicting. There doesn’t really seem to be much, if anything, that’s worthwhile amongst the people gathered at Cowboys stadium. They’re stupid and sentimental, crude and shallow. After awhile, it got a bit unappetizing, and, honestly, I think that lack of complexity is what kept the novel from being truly great.
Then I read Fountain’s story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which mostly consists of stories about expats in other countries: an ornithologist who gets kidnapped by Colombian rebels; an NGO worker in Sierra Leone who agrees to smuggle diamonds for her boyfriend; another NGO worker, in Haiti, who gets caught up in a rebellion. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I thought I’d hate, but I loved it. Still not sure why. Just very well-drawn characters and settings, I think. It’s hard to account for actually, since my revulsion to this kind of story is so immediate and instinctive. But it’s not the first collection like this that I’ve enjoyed! I also really liked Nell Freudenberger’s very similar story collection. It’s unaccountable, I suppose.