First-time novelist Ben Fountain won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award on Feb. 28 for his must-read novel, ''Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.'' You can find it in paperback if you missed it last year.

In a 2008 New Yorker article about artistic talent, Malcolm Gladwell used author Jonathan Safran Foer as an example of a ”prodigy,” contrasting him with ”late bloomer” Ben Fountain, who has gone on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for his first novel just days before his 55th birthday.

Fountain worked as a lawyer until 1988, when he quit to concentrate on fiction. He has since published two books, 2006’s acclaimed short-story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara and last year’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. ”I’m at a point in my life where I can allow myself to enjoy this, whereas 20 years ago I might not have been able to do that,” says Fountain.

Billy Lynn, which EW picked as one of the 10 best novels of 2012, follows a group of young soldiers during a single Dallas Cowboys game in 2004, where they’re guests of honor after an act of bravery in Iraq has turned them into war heroes. Fountain conceived of the story on the Thanksgiving following George W. Bush’s reelection while watching an actual Dallas Cowboys game at a party. ”Maybe, thanks to Bombay Sapphire gin, I was more susceptible to visions and trances,” he says. ”I really started watching that halftime show as this surreal mash-up of militarism, triumphalism, American exceptionalism, and soft-core porn all poured into this big stew.”

Billy Lynn uses the same wild ingredients, including an amped-up version of the real-life halftime performance by Destiny’s Child back in 2004. Fountain felt vindicated when he saw the trio reunite at the recent Super Bowl. ”Big business, big money, big deals, and big boobs. In a way, they seem like exaggerated elements of American life, but they’re the air we breathe,” says Fountain. ”It made me feel like maybe I got things right.”