Politics runs through the marrow of Devil Makes Three (Flatiron, Sept.), the second novel by National Book Critics Circle Award winner Ben Fountain: it’s set against the backdrop of the September 1991 Haiti coup that snuffed the candle of hope in one of the world’s most impoverished nations. Devil Makes Three continues Fountain’s larger preoccupation with the dice theory of democracy. Who wins and who loses. Who wields ultimate power. His 2012 debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is an absorbing if uncompromising look at the Iraq War, while his collection of short fiction, 2006’s magnificently titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, plumbs characters fractured by social upheaval.

Now in his mid-60s and silver haired, Fountain speaks via Zoom from his sister’s house in Raleigh, N.C., en route to his home in Dallas from a vacation on the Outer Banks. His soft cadences reflect his Tarheel roots; he was raised in the North Carolina tobacco town of Elizabeth City, nestled in the eastern coastal plain, adjacent to Albemarle Sound.

The turmoil of the civil rights era—and its drawn-out, fiery coda, the school integration battles of the 1970s—molded Fountain’s commitment to social justice and lit a path through the University of North Carolina and law school at Duke University, where he met his wife, Sharon. After the couple moved to Dallas, he worked in real estate finance law. The work—“big deals, big money, big egos”—left him with the nagging “compulsion” to make a go as a writer.

In the late 1980s, after he turned 30 and Sharon made partner as a tax attorney, he made the switch. He took on the role of “househusband” and primary caregiver to their two children. “Until the kids started school, we had a nanny who would come in for six, seven hours a day so I could get my writing done,” he recalls. “It would have been impossible to get much work done otherwise.”

Early in his literary career, Fountain focused on writing short stories and publishing them in small journals. He created files on topics that intrigued him, including one on Haiti. As his fascination with the country’s history grew, he began imagining the place and planning visits. Eventually, he produced a novel that his agent submitted to publishers but failed to sell. He started Devil Makes Three in 2013, setting it aside in 2016 to cover the U.S. presidential election for the Guardian. (That assignment morphed into his 2019 nonfiction book, Beautiful Country Burn Again.) He circled back to Devil Makes Three in 2019.

“It’s not always feasible to go,” Fountain says about setting his story in an unfamiliar place. “So you do the next best thing: you learn all you can about it, which is the first step. Second step is to imagine your way into that world. I think the need to go to a place is much more urgent if you’re writing a novel set in that place, just given the worldbuilding that’s required.”

In May 1991, Sharon gave him a week off from domestic duties, and, at the age of 33, he went on his first trip to Haiti. It was also his first trip outside the United States. Just three months before the uprising that toppled Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Fountain arrived in Port-au-Prince with no contacts or connections.

He’s been back nearly 50 times since.

The coup that overthrew Aristide launches the action in Devil Makes Three. As the novel opens, violence ravages the streets of Port-au-Prince and across the country. Fountain’s protagonist, Matt Amaker, an American expatriate and scuba enthusiast, and his friend and business partner, Alix Variel, scion of an illustrious Haitian family, attempt to weather the chaos by exploring a fabled shipwreck off the island’s coast, mesmerized by fantasies of treasure. Both men steer clear of the capital, “a dull orange haze hanging over everything like a fulminating cloud of Cheetos dust... hot, stinking, gridlocked, its few soft spaces rubbed raw.”

The CIA has other plans, however. Audrey O’Donnell, a young case agent who goes by the cover name Shelly Graver, finds herself embroiled in an illegal arms scheme, “dark, dangerous, and thrilling—call it a necessary evil, and proof that she was living a significant life.” Alix’s sister, Misha, a literature student at Brown who decides to stay in Haiti after the coup, unmasks a conspiracy hiding behind the facade of a U.S. humanitarian office. The fates of Fountain’s cast merge after Matt and Alix are arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities.

American innocence lost; clashes along lines of race and class; deeds done in the shadows by a government beyond the ken of its citizens—these themes bridge Fountain’s oeuvre. He locates himself at the intersection of literature and politics, within a contemporary lineage of novelists, from the departed—Robert Stone, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion—to the living, such as Zadie Smith and 2022 National Book Award finalists Jamil Jan Kochai and Sarah Thankam Mathews, whose fiction confronts the radical need for social transformation. “The genuine writers, the good writers, the writers who are really going after the real things... Politics is naturally going to be a part of their writing,” he says.

But why does Haiti loom so large in Fountain’s imagination? “It’s such an intractable place with such a complex history, a place like none other,” he explains. “I started to get the sense that Haiti is the paradigm for how a lot of the world works. How it’s come to be over the past 500 years.”

Fountain sees Haiti as a country where race, politics, power, and capitalism collide; it’s a microcosm of geopolitics, with “strong vestiges of the Indigenous culture, African culture, all different strains of western culture, all banging together in this very intense way.”

Despite his research and travel, Fountain is conscious of his own status as an outsider. “I’m always a blan, always the white guy,” he observes. “I’m welcomed in certain communities. I’ll always be a foreigner, but among some circles I’m their foreigner.”

As Fountain studied Haiti, both on the ground and from afar, he encountered a plethora of stereotypes about the nation, which boiled down to a simple formula: it’s so backward, it’s so far behind. His own travel and experiences taught him otherwise.

“Pretty quickly I started to think, no, actually Haiti’s way ahead of the curve,” he says. “The first free Black country in the world by 150 years, until Ghana in 1959; the most advanced constitution of its time; universal emancipation—if you were an enslaved or an Indigenous person on the run, and you made it to Haiti, you were free, you had asylum. Historians say it’s the most radical constitution of its time. I’m, like, no”—and here Fountain wags his finger—“it’s the most reasonable constitution of its time, the most liberated and farseeing and far thinking.”

For Fountain, what’s past is prologue: the post-coup social unraveling mirrors much of today’s global unrest. “You look at Haiti in 1991 and the authoritarian tendencies of the politics, and then you look at the breakdown in public health and infrastructure, and just how hard daily life became for people,” he says. “There was widespread malnutrition; vaccination programs came to a halt. A public health disaster. The balkanization of politics at that time—also the messianic quality. Aristide was hovering over the country. The people were obsessed: When is he coming back? When is the second coming of Aristide going to happen? As I was writing this book, sometimes I was thinking, God, this sure feels 2020!”

Hamilton Cain is a book critic and author of a memoir, This Boy’s Faith.