The Whole Nation Looks at 3 North Carolina Connected Authors

Three recent books with North Carolina connections have gained national recognition. You should certainly know about them.

Tim Gautreaux is widely admired in our state’s literary community. For instance, popular Hillsborough author Lee Smith, writing about Gautreaux’s latest book, “The Missing,” said, “I have just finished, biting my nails and staying up almost all night to do so—-surely the best rip-roaring old fashioned truly American page-turner ever written! No way to say how much I admire that book. Got your attention?”

“The Missing,” like Smith’s “The Last Girls,” is set on a riverboat that travels along the Mississippi River.

But it is not the same kind of book.

Smith’s characters are contemporary middle-aged women on a luxury tourist ship remembering their college river rafting venture down the river.

Gautreaux’s tale, set in post World War I times, is dark and violent, featuring a kidnapped child and outlaw families living on swampy, nearly deserted lands near the river.

Gautreaux grew up in Louisiana’s Cajun country and has spent most of his life writing about his home state and teaching there.

So what is his North Carolina connection? His wife grew up in Raeford, and since Hurricane Katrina they have divided their time between Louisiana and a home in Ashe County. Gautreaux will be the guest on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch on Sunday at noon (February 3) and Thursday (February 7) at 5 p.m.

Three North Carolina-connected books made the New York Times “100 Notable Books-2012” list. The only non-fiction sports-related book on the list is “American Triumvirate Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf.” Its author, James Dodson, is the editor of “O. Henry” and PineStraw” magazines and is an award-winning writer-in-residence at The Pilot in Southern Pines.

Snead, Nelson, and Hogan dominated professional golf in the years surrounding World War II. Ironically, all were born in 1912, and their stories, as told by Dodson, are intertwined and poignant.

Dodson says these three are responsible for the popular professional golf game that we know today. (February 10, 14)

One of North Carolina’s most successful and admired business leaders grew up in unbelievably oppressive circumstances in China during the Cultural Revolution. Starved, beaten, denied basic education, she survived and has prevailed. She tells this story of her challenging pathway to success in this country in her new book, “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.”

The book’s title comes from advice from Ping Fu’s “Shanghai Papa,” who told her, “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back even from the most difficult times. . . . Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. Take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly.”

Ping Fu is the founder and CEO of Morrisville-based Geomagic. It develops 3D software that makes possible the exact duplication of 3D objects using small machines called 3D printers. In 2005, Inc. Magazine named her Entrepreneur of the Year. A few weeks ago, Geomagic was acquired by one of its customers.

As “Bend, Not Break” moves on to the national bestseller lists, it will inspire readers and draw scrutiny from some skeptics who may find Ping Fu’s journey too amazing to be real. (February 17, 21)

Finally, are you wondering what other North Carolina connected books made the New York Times Notable Books list? They are Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” set in Texas Stadium in Dallas, with a halftime performance by Beyonce, just in time for Super Bowl reading, and Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home,” set in Madison County.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage.

A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch. 

Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). This week’s (February 6) guest is David Cecelski author of “The Waterman’s Song.”

The Cézanne-like genius of Ben Fountain

Before you watch acclaimed author, North Carolina native Ben Fountain, on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend (Friday at 9:30 p.m. or Sunday at 5 p.m.), you should read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 New Yorker article titled “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”

Have you already tossed that old magazine? Not to worry. It is available online right here.

And why do I want you to read Gladwell before you watch Fountain talk about his acclaimed debut novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”?

Short answer: Fountain is the lead character in Gladwell’s non-fiction story about the rich rewards of late or slow-blooming genius.
Another character in the piece is the painter Cézanne. Gladwell contrasts Cézanne with Picasso, whose early works, painted in the exuberance of his youth, are much more valuable than those he painted later in life. On the other hand, the opposite is true for Cézanne.

“The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer — and for some reason, in our accounting of genius and creativity, we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.”

Gladwell suggests that Cézanne’s long struggle and search made his ultimately successful work richer and deeper than had his success come quicker and easier. First quoting English art critic Roger Fry, Gladwell wrote, “‘More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.’ Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.”

For Gladwell, Ben Fountain is “one of the Cézannes of the world.” He makes the comparison of Cézanne’s long struggles to Fountain’s years of writing before his genius was recognized. “This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”

Fountain left his work as a lawyer and began writing in 1988. His blockbuster, award-winning book of short stories “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” came out in 2006, eighteen years later. Gladwell writes ironically, “The ‘young’ writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

A long struggle, but the struggle framed Fountain’s success. He became consumed by Haiti, going back and forth about 30 times. Gladwell points out that “four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.”

According to Gladwell, Fountain’s writing reads with easy grace, but, he says, “there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation.”
In his 2008 article, Gladwell wrote, “Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.”
Fountain had been working on that novel, “The Texas Itch,” for eight years. Shortly after the Gladwell article was published, Fountain gave up on it, tossed it. He says it was not good enough.

But he plunged into the writing of  “Billy Lynn” and applying the rough lessons from the failure of “The Texas Itch,” he has produced a sensational novel, one that is being called “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days” and “the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq War.”

Don’t miss the chance to hear Fountain talk about his new book on North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

Doris Betts and Reynolds Price: Filling the empty space

Who writes for us now?

The question came up again with the death of Doris Betts, the beloved teacher and writer, a few weeks ago, reminding us that we have still not gotten used to a North Carolina without Reynolds Price although he died more than a year ago.

Even non-readers miss them. Their storytelling wisdom had spread like ripples from their readers and students into a wider audience.

Are there other North Carolina writers and teachers to take their places?

Yes. Price and Betts trained and encouraged an army of followers. Think Lee Smith. Think about her husband, Hal Crowther, whose biting essays drag us mercilessly to a painfully enhanced understanding of our society’s failures.

As reported recently in this column, two recent first novels by North Carolina natives introduced us to authors who fall squarely in the Price-Betts tradition. Wiley Cash (“A Land More Kind than Home”) and Ben Fountain (“Billy Lynn’s Last Halftime Walk”).

Unfortunately for us, both Cash and Fountain are now based away from home– Cash in West Virginia and Fountain in Texas.

But, thankfully, there is also an immigration of talent into our state, drawn here undoubtedly by the tradition that Betts and Price fostered.

One of the new immigrant talents is John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Wilmington resident since 2004. His “Pulphead: Essays,” like Hal Crowther’s work, demands reflection and sometimes leads to self-conviction. But the essays also entertain and educate by turning Sullivan’s life’s experiences into compelling literature.

“Pulphead” gained national critical attention in 2011:  A “New York Times” notable book; an “Entertainment Weekly” top 10 nonfiction book; a “Time” top 10 nonfiction book; one of “Library Journal’s” best books.

In the article naming “Pulphead” one of the “Boston Globe’s” best nonfiction books of 2011, Michael Washburn wrote that the book is “devastatingly, sublimely good …. Sullivan revitalizes fringe events, mis-appreciated moments, and forgotten figures, from Christian rock festivals and Michael Jackson’s first performance of ‘Billie Jean’ to spectral, nearly forgotten blues singers, in idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, ribald, and slantwise essays….close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.”

Accompanying Amazon’s selection of “Pulphead” as one of the best books of the month in November 2011, Neal Thompson wrote, “What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O’Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother’s near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem….”

“Pulphead’s” opening essay records Sullivan’s attendance at a Christian rock festival. As a skeptical journalist, Sullivan intends to probe the Christian rock music genre. But surrounded by a small group of hard-core evangelical Christian good old boys, Sullivan remembers and reflects upon his own “Jesus phase,” all the while delivering snide slams at the mediocrity of the music at the festival. It turned out to be rock music on a Christian leash, a formula that led neither to good music nor good religion.

North Carolina movie and TV fans will identify with the book’s final essay. It describes Sullivan’s family’s experience renting their home in Wilmington for the production of the TV series “One Tree Hill.”

In between are 12 other provocative pieces, each of which proves the talents of this new voice, whom Doris Betts and Reynolds Price would be proud to welcome into North Carolina’s literary pantheon.

How did God vote on Amendment 1?

Where was God in all this, really?

North Carolinians heard God speaking in contradictory voices during the weeks leading up to the vote on May 8 when voters approved Amendment 1, which added to the state constitution a provision that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized…”

In the campaigns leading up to the decisive vote, hordes of priests and ministers, mostly from mainline Protestant churches, lent their names to advertisements and correspondence invoking religious values in opposition to the amendment.

On the other hand, Billy Graham and many lesser-known religious leaders declared confidently that the proposed amendment was in accord with God’s plan.

Were these different groups of priests and preachers in touch with the same God?

Or are some North Carolinians beginning their prayers with, “Hello, up there, are there really two of You sending us different signals?”

In the Old Testament, when there was a dispute in Israel about which god to worship, the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to burn a sacrifice to his God, after the prophets of Baal had failed in similar efforts.

Today there is no prophet like Elijah to call on the Lord to bring down fire to show the confused people which of God’s spokesmen to follow. There is no Elijah, no fire to show the correct altar or the voice of the one true God.

But, for those who want to understand more about the power that religion holds in our state’s life and politics, there is help in new books by North Carolina authors.

Wiley Cash’s debut novel, “A Land More Kind than Home,” set in the mountainous Madison County in the mid-1980s, shows the complex and conflicting attachments people in a small church feel towards their pastor as he speaks his version of God’s word. This pastor, guided by the words of Mark 16:18, leads his congregation into handling snakes and drinking poison to demonstrate and test their faith. They attempt to bring God into miraculous healings using rough methods. Most of this preacher’s members follow him even when their activities fail and result in multiple deaths.

Popular Hendersonville author Ann B. Ross confronts her heroine with a variety of religious challenges in her latest novel, “Miss Julia to the Rescue,” set in the mountains of contemporary times. Miss Julia encounters devoted snake-handling church people who worship their God with the aid of poisonous snakes much like the church in Cash’s novel. Horrified and frightened, she is nevertheless impressed by the loyalty and devotion of the congregation.

Even more challenging to Miss Julia is her encounter with the advocates of a new “Church of Body Modification,” where commitment is demonstrated by tattoos and attachment of heavy metal objects to the believer’s body, “which test and push the limits of flesh and spirit.”

At the end of the book after her encounters with a variety of religious experiences, Miss Julia finds comfort in the pew of her own Presbyterian church, thinking, “Give me the King James Version, a hymnal and Communion every quarter.”

In two other books, already mentioned in recent columns, religious views and experiences are key factors. In Susan Woodring’s “Goliath,” church and personal religious commitments undergird the response of her fictional town decimated by the closing of its furniture factory.

In “Billy Lynn’s Last Halftime Walk,” the superficial religious pronouncements of worldly, military-service-avoiding characters complicate the experience of soldiers who are home on a break from fighting in Iraq.

In short, God is not dead in North Carolina life. Although our people may hear and understand God’s voices differently, many are listening. And, as the recent Amendment 1 contest demonstrated again, the different voices of God still move people into action.

Ben Fountain's long wait brings us the "Catch-22" of the Iraq War

What is really going on inside their minds when the soldiers come home? Before they can tell us, the call comes to go back to the Middle East for another long tour.

In North Carolina, such brave soldiers and their families surround us. We try to honor them and show our appreciation for what they do for us. We do it as best we can when we see them in uniform in airports, on the streets, and at halftimes during athletic contests in university stadiums, professional sports arenas, and high school gyms.
But those expressions of appreciation, sincere as they may be, are not nearly enough.

Then there is another question, a haunting one, that is raised by North Carolina native, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke Law graduate Ben Fountain in his new novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” He questions whether these soldier heroes are being used by “the business of war” to win and maintain support for our country’s military actions. 

Fountain has won many writing awards. His book of short stories “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” gained widespread critical praise. That book was published in 2006, 18 years after Fountain quit his job with a Dallas law firm and began his writing career. That long struggle for success caught the attention of New Yorker columnist and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who featured Fountain in a 2008 article about late blooming geniuses. He compared Fountain to the artist Cezanne, whose early efforts at painting showed no mark of genius.

Gladwell, first quoting art critic Roger Fry, wrote, “‘such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.’ Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing. This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”

Even though Gladwell and many others recognized Fountain’s “late blooming” genius, he never published a novel until this month.

It was worth the wait.  “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is already being called “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days” and “the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq War.”

The novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day in Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys football game. Billy Lynn and seven other soldier heroes are there to be honored for their service in Iraq, concluding a two-week cross country tour before they return to the war zone.

The soldiers are put on display in the owner’s box and subjected to wealthy Texas oilman-style patriotic banter that rings discordant. A mega-church preacher Billy met on the tour sends him numerous e-mails in an attempt, Billy comes to believe, to make a connection with him only because the preacher wants to be able to brag about how he is helping a war hero through a religious crisis.

At halftime the soldiers are put on patriotic display in a gaudy show featuring Beyonce and pop group Destiny’s Child, which becomes “a blowup of foreplay aerobics, rocket thrusting, shadow humping…and not a damn thing you [the soldiers] can do about it except stand at attention and get pole-danced in front of forty million people.”

If all this is what America is about, the soldiers are ready to go back to Iraq.

In the words of Dallas Morning News reviewer Bryan Woolley, Fountain has written a “powerful, heartbreaking story of the great gulf between what the country thinks it is and what it is.”