The Republic Torn Asunder in Ben Fountain’s ‘Beautiful Country Burn Again’

Lee Polevoi


Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution

By Ben Fountain


448 pages


From the perspective of a recent American expatriate, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a disaster from his first day in office. (Of course, millions of resident American citizens feel the same way.) Prizewinning novelist Ben Fountain saw this coming a long time ago.


In Beautiful Country Burn Again, Fountain revisits the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign. Interspersed with his vivid, on-the-scene reportage are sections he calls “Book of Days,” a more or less objective compilation of world events taking place in the months leading up to Election Day. (It makes for grim reading.) He also theorizes at length about something he calls The Third Reinvention, addressing—with the hopes of reforming or eliminating—wealth inequality, white supremacy, and damage already inflicted on the democratic system.


These ruminations are interesting to ponder, but they pale beside his riveting first-person accounts of incidents and debates from that woeful time.


All of the major players of 2016 fall prey to Fountain’s sharp wit and endless reserves of outrage, a completely appropriate attitude to take in the face of our presidential campaign spectacle.  There’s Hillary Clinton, of course:


“She’s organized, vigorous, passionate, her policy points make such good common sense that you want to believe she can always be this fine—that perhaps the presidency would make it so, lift her above the careerist temporizing and compulsive money grab of the politician who aspires to go ever higher. Can’t go any higher than the White House, right? And so it’s tempting to think that the best in her would be encouraged, and only the best. As if the history of the office didn’t show how rare this is.”



And Donald Trump, her bellicose, philandering and amoral campaign opponent:


“For millions of Americans there is nothing so real as Trump’s performance of himself, this spectacle of a billionaire businessman—reality TV star whose very offensiveness—the bragging, the gutter insults, the lying and whining, the blatantly racist and sexist riffs that would doom a conventional candidate—only makes him more authentic. No phony would dare do such things, just as no conventional candidate would so self-consciously ham it up for the cover of his campaign biography, as Trump did for Crippled America. It's a mug worthy of Mussolini: thrust chin, glowering eyes, operatic scowl enacting a tough-guy shtick of sternness and strength.”


Perhaps because he hails from Texas, Fountain reserves a special animus for Senator Ted Cruz:


“In person there’s a schlumpy fleshiness to him, a blurring of definition in his face and neck, the little knob of his chin dangling like a boiled quail egg.”


You get the picture.


Much of Beautiful Country Burn Again feels like it was written in a long, sustained white-hot pitch of indignation. And while, again, that feels right for the time Fountain’s describing, the rage becomes a bit wearying to read and gets us not much further down the road. No degree of indignation, it seems, is big enough to contain the daily grind of falsehoods and mediocrity emanating from the Oval Office. We, the trod-upon electorate, have little to look forward to for two long years to come.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, author of The Moon in Deep Winter, is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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