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Author Ben Fountain speaks to incoming Brandeisians at New Student Forum

Ben Fountain signing a book for a student

By Brian Klotz

Before taking their first classes, the Class of 2022 wasted no time in engaging in the thought-provoking, nuanced discussions that will be the hallmark of their Brandeis experience.

With members of the largest incoming class in university history gathered in Spingold Theater, author Ben Fountain spoke about “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk,” his critically acclaimed debut novel, which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was adapted into a 2016 film of the same name by director Ang Lee.

“Your faculty has guts,” Fountain remarked, eliciting laughter from the audience. “This is a pretty raw book, and Brandeis has a very special place in my heart for bringing me here and for its willingness to engage with some pretty difficult material.”

For over two decades, the Helen and Philip Brecher New Student Forum has chosen a book each summer for the incoming class to read. Once they arrive on campus, they engage in small discussion groups with faculty members, followed by a presentation from and Q-and-A with the author. Members of the Brandeis National Committee also read each year’s selection, using a recording of the talk to spur their own discussions in chapter locations throughout the United States.

“This program is meant to be an opportunity for you as a class to have a joint learning experience,” Provost Lisa Lynch told the students in attendance. “It’s not an experience with an exam at the end or grades attached to it, but it’s meant to be a way to talk about something you may never have imagined having a conversation about.” Lynch added that the New Student Forum also serves as a “first practice round” of the type of discourse students will engage in at Brandeis.

In introducing Fountain, Dean of Arts and Sciences Dorothy Hodgson noted that the selection community was unanimous and passionate about selecting “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Reading a statement from English professor and committee chair John Plotz, Hodgson explains that the novel was chosen for its compelling story and its “original and memorable ways of bringing readers into a world that feels distant and intimate at once.”

Ben Fountain and Dorothy Hodgson on stage at Spingold Theater in front of applauding crowd of freshmen

A sharp satire, the novel centers on a group of young Iraq war veterans taking part in the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboy’s Thanksgiving game as part of a “victory tour.” The book has been heralded by some critics as “the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq War.”

As Fountain explained, the idea came to him when he saw this scenario play out in real life, as veterans took part in a halftime show alongside music group Destiny’s Child. Sitting on his couch, he was mesmerized by the spectacle of patriotism and commercialization colliding with all the subtlety of the fireworks in the air. “I wondered, what would it do to your head if you were a young soldier who’s been in a warzone, and you’ve experienced that ultimate life and death reality of combat, and then you come home and you’re dropped into the middle of this surreal, over-amped, artificial reality?”

After his presentation, Fountain engaged in a discussion with the students in the attendance, as the newly minted Brandeisians offered their own analysis and asked probing questions about some of his choices in writing the novel and his thoughts on it becoming a movie. At the end of the night, Fountain stayed to sign copies of the book and speak with attendees individually.

Supriya Jain ’22, a first-year student from Georgia, enjoyed her first academic Brandeis experience at the New Student Forum. “I got a lot of insight from it,” she said. “The small group discussions helped a lot, and having the author here is amazing. I love it when you can actually talk to an author about what they were thinking as they were writing.” Jain shares that she even had some of her non-Brandeis friends read along with her so they could discuss.

“Once you analyze a book, you always love it more,” she adds.

The Helen and Philip Brecher New Student Forum is generously funded by Gail Brecher Tomberg ’57, P’85, and her late husband Martin.

Categories: Events, Giving, Students
Date: August 30, 2018