Having just finished Fear, the sobering, fact-filled narrative by Bob Woodward of a presidency gone off the rails, I was afraid that Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain would be another round of depressing reporting about dysfunction in the White House. But this collection of essays written during the 2016 presidential campaign goes far beyond expressing disdain for Donald Trump, which Fountain certainly does. His central point -- that the United States is going through a third national crisis preceded by the Civil War and the Great Depression, and by which we will “burn again” and then reinvent ourselves (for better or for worse) -- takes the reader back through these decisive moments in history and then returns to the present, where “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest.” Throughout his narrative, Fountain debates the concepts of democracy, freedom, equality, prosperity, how these have evolved over the years, and where we are headed as the social contract we’ve had since the Great Depression begins to shred.
No one on the campaign trail escapes Fountain’s acerbic commentary – Hillary Clinton (“Suppose each dollar Hillary gets from Goldman Sachs is a Jimmy Dean sausage link, why then you’d have enough sausage to loop around the moon and back this many times!”); Ted Cruz, a slick Texas senator with “the skin of an avid indoorsman,” and Bernie Sanders, “a hectoring old geezer with scribby gray hair and suspiciously perfect teeth, the kind you slide in every morning and snap at the mirror, clack clack,” all come under Fountain’s scrutiny. And, of course, he saves his best for the eventual winner: “If Trump internalized J.R. Ewing he clearly lifted just as much from Tony Soprano, the histrionics, the Jersey slosh in the mouth as the words come fast and hot and the voice cracks high, jumping an octave like a ventriloquist’s trick or a kick in the balls, such weird squeakings from these human water buffaloes.” But he also condemns the uninformed voters who elected these politicians into office. “What is it about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on, electing crooks, racists, bullies, hate-mongering preachers, corporate bagmen and bald-faced liars? Not always, but often. The history is damning. We must on some level, want what they are offering.”
What I found most delightful about reading Beautiful Country Burn Again was Fountain’s brilliant way with words. He brings his descriptive skills as a fiction-writer to his reporting of a year so bizarre it almost reads like fiction. Kudos to Fountain for making me laugh out loud despite the increasingly alarming levels of political lunacy he uncovers.
Dozens of books have been written about the 2016 campaign, the election, and the Trump presidency. What sets Beautiful Country Burn Again apart is the remarkable wit and insight of author Ben Fountain.