Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Like A Fountain Stirred"

This post is a shameless plug for an event this Wednesday (May 2) at Book People here in Austin.  The plug is for my pal Ben Fountain whose new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, has just been released.  The shameless part is that I secretly want you to be impressed that I have such happening, talented friends. 

Ben is a writer of tremendous integrity.  His collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, received rave reviews from all quarters.  Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a story about Ben for The New Yorker, which celebrates his career and the fact that it has been enabled, in part, by Ben’s terrifically supportive tax-lawyer wife, Sharon (aka Sharie)—who is also a friend, in case anyone is keeping track.  Ben’s story nicely confirms one of Mr. Gladwell’s pet theories regarding how a person manages to accomplish something noteworthy in this life.  According to one of Mr. Gladwell’s little best-sellers, Outliers, success has something to do with the “10,000-Hour Rule.”  Gladwell postulates that success (in virtually any field) can be attributed to a person’s having beaten his or her head against the same wall for something like 10,000 hours.  And in the New Yorker article, Gladwell explains how Ben became a literary success in a way that seemed, deceptively, to have occurred overnight but was actually the product of years of head-banging.

The trick now is for me to find a way to suggest that plugging Ben’s new novel about heroism, abuse, and oblivion in Texas in the Iraq War’s shadows is somehow relevant to this blog about Shakespeare and the law.  Let me propose the following (modified) syllogism as a means to illustrate the airtight connection among these phenomena:

  • Shakespeare was a writer who referred repeatedly to law and lawyers.
  • My friend Ben Fountain is a writer who used to be a lawyer.
  • Ergo, a post about Ben includes the set of things that have something to do with both Shakespeare and Law and are thus relevant to this blawg.

How is it that you know Ben Fountain?!--you must be longing to ask. 

So I will tell you.  Ben and I met at the end of the last century when we were each at a critical crossroad in our careers.  Back then, Ben was just another depressed, underappreciated, talented writer, toiling away in a vacuum.  Thus, he and I shared a few things—in particular, the “depressed” and “toiling” characteristics.  But not long thereafter, Ben managed to get himself a hot-shot agent, ink a publishing deal, win countless awards (including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN award) and even sign a few options with filmmakers smart enough to see that his fiction was crying out for cinematic translation.  Meanwhile, I, the wild-eyed thespian, pursued a different trajectory.  The path I decided to take not long after meeting Ben was hardly “a road less traveled.”  Indeed, it was a path that Ben himself had taken, although he had taken that path in the ordinary course—or rather, in the “proper season.”  The course to which I refer is law school.

Law school seemed appealing because I’d finally started to tire of a diet of show tunes and Riceroni.  I’d spent years trying to bring innovative, consciousness-raising live theater to Dallas, Texas.  Had a little theater company that took on the Big Issues—postmodern degradation, mental illness, incest, AIDS, political correctness, and the little known health benefits of military-industrial-new-world-order paranoia.  And we’d made sure that each show was not “just about us” by earmarking a percentage of each production’s measly ticket sales to some other non-profit group working locally to further a cause that shared some thematic connection with the particular show.  (The Masters and Ph.D. I earned during this same period were not in Business Administration.) 

During this time, I had failed to keep in mind that Dallas is a city best known for Neiman Marcus, Mary Kay Cosmetics, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, a dead Kennedy, and “Urgent Care Clinics” offering drive-through “Botox NOW.” 

And so, not long after taking my last artistic stand in a Beckett play before a crowd of at least five people, a random conversation with a friend inspired me to consider a radically conventional mission instead:  Go to law school, get a real job, see if economic stability might follow.  (You see that my story involves lots of pain and suffering.)  The last person in my circle with whom I shared the big news regarding this mid-term career correction was Ben.  Why was Ben the last to know?  Because I had no doubt that he would be appalled by the idea. 

Ben had been a lawyer and had precious few good things to say about the whole experience at that time—even though he’d been a rock star, a law school stud.  He’d gone to Duke, made Law Review, graduated Order of the Coif (which is elitist code for top-ten percent).  He’d earned a slew of other badges of success, including a job with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a multi-national firm based in Dallas where he’d shined as both a litigator and a real estate deal-maker.  

That was all years before I met Ben.  He’d walked away from Big Law just before he came up for partnership consideration.  Knowing Ben, he would have been a shoe-in.  But he wanted to write fiction.  Serious fiction.  Not just motions, briefs, and deal due diligence.  The Dallas cost of living and the income of his saintly, successful, tax lawyer wife meant they could live well and provide for their kids even if Ben gave up the steady paycheck and instead used his ferocious discipline to beat his head against a wall in the service of art for 10,000-plus hours until he “suddenly” became a literary superstar.

One day before Ben’s big break-through, we met for a quick lunch.  It was scheduled between one of my three or four teaching gigs for the day.  I quickly broke the news, “Uh, Ben, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.  I have applied to law school.” 

I swear I could see real tears well up in his saucer-sized blue eyes.  He must have felt I was betraying the cause of struggling Bohemians everywhere.  And I think he was genuinely concerned about what the law school experience might do to a character like me, considering my “advanced years” and modest iconoclastic streak.  But Ben was too gentle to try to talk me out of it once he saw how adamant I was.  And so, not long after voicing great trepidation, he became one of my most-reliable sounding boards and cheerleaders during the dark days when I contracted the peculiar ailment known as “1-L” status. 

Although the law school quick-fix is an antidote that has appealed to many lost souls—mostly young overachievers with no specific career convictions or no appetite for poverty—my mid-life quest was different.  I embraced the idea of law school for truly mercenary and idealistic reasons.  I’d became obsessed with the idea of abandoning my dreams of artistic integrity (aka those 10,000-plus hours of head-beating) and trading those dreams in for a shot at gainful employment because I was tired of feeling like a Spokesmodel for Narcissstic Personality Disorder and wanted to adopt a kid.  (Who knew I would end up liking both studying and practicing law?) 

Besides, it all sounded so easy for a change:  Get into a good school, make good grades, get a challenging job paying a six-figure salary—with health insurance to boot!  Sure, there would be some serious expectations in the hard work department.  But I had ample experience with, and appetite for, obsessive work.  Therefore, I concluded that I could do it!  I could leave behind the bright lights performing in no-name venues and take up residence in the shadows of the quasi-respectable legal profession.  I could sell out, sell my soul (if it was still worth anything), and seize some unassuming place in the rat race.  Why the hell not?!  Being able to buy a little peace of mind (and groceries) could be its own reward.  I left my friends back in Dallas and my husband reeling as I headed to Austin to attend the University of Texas School of Law in a broken-down Mazda pick-up packed full of cats and my Riverside Shakespeare, which I feared was soon to become little more than an awkward doorstop.

Now, a dozen years later, I am a lawyer.  But I have also finagled things such that I again have time for occasional deep-dives into Shakespeare and to celebrate other heroic talents, like my very adorable, brilliant friend, Ben Fountain. 

So to anyone reading this I say: Buy Ben’s book, pretty please.  You will not regret it.

And to Ben himself I say, courtesy of WS:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste[.]
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30

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