OCTOBER 14, 2018
“AMERICA IS various!” says Ben Fountain in the new nonfiction book Beautiful Country Burn Again; and nowhere is this truer than in his own great big super-American hybrid work.
Fountain tackled the big subject of American discontent in the election cycle of 2016 in a series of articles for the Guardian that have been repurposed and expanded into a book-length disquisition. With its digressions into American history, culture, biography, and political theory, and with its tonal shifts from blazing moral argument to understated, hilarious observation, the book defies categorization as mere journalism.
Fountain, the author of the best-selling novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, calls himself “a reporter with a fiction habit,” but the contradictions don’t stop there. On the one hand, the situation is dire, and the “beautiful country” is unsalvageable — fit, as Robinson Jeffers put it, only to “burn again” (as it did in the Civil War and the turmoil that led to the New Deal). On the other hand, the book is laugh-out-loud funny and the very opposite of depressing. With Fountain as our Virgil, our tour guide to hell, we not only have a great time but come out feeling energized rather than defeated.
The sentence “America is various” appears twice in the same paragraph. At this point, Fountain has gone to Louisville, Kentucky, for the National Rifle Association’s 145th annual convention, and discovered that the city is at the same time host to a program called “Pathways to Nonviolence.” He listens to a woman named Tori Murden McClure cite Islamophobia as one of the NRA’s justification for arming the population. She offers statistics showing that deaths from non-terror incidents involving firearms between 2001 and 2015 outnumbered US deaths from terrorism by about 16.5 to 1. Anyone could make that point. But McClure, Fountain tells us, not only has an MDiv from Harvard and is the president of Spalding University, but she’s also “the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.”
“America is various!” repeats Fountain in a parenthesis, by which he means: what a country, can you beat that? Fountain positively revels in American excesses and absurdities, whether benign, as in this case, or pernicious, as at the 11-acre gun show across town. It is as if at any minute he can whip out his anthropologist’s notebook and delightedly record the bizarre customs of the natives of his native land.
The gun show is a case in point. It fascinates him, all 11 acres. He does admit to lapsing, from time to time, into a “fugue state […] a retail trance brought on by sheer sensory overload”; but, he continues, “with all this American ingenuity and weirdness on display, actual boredom was out of the question.” He gazes and marvels at “all the polymers, alloys, finishes, calibers, stock and barrel configurations. […] bullet-splat jewelry, deep-concealment holsters, triple-barrel shotguns, and camo everything — coolers, flasks, four-wheelers, deer blinds, lingerie, infant-wear.”
McClure’s statistics are shocking and necessary, but Fountain brings us word as well of bullet-splat jewelry and camo infant wear. His wide-awake reporting jolts us out of thinking we know what’s going on and puts us in touch with the mystery that human beings are to one another.
Beautiful Country Burn Again is by no means all fun and games. The book moves from one sharply pointed narrative to another, provoking the reader to rethink episodes from our past she thought she understood already. From the shenanigans of Joe McCarthy to the bitterness of Ambrose Bierce to the origins of the New Democrats, Fountain condenses immense amounts of research into fascinating, revealing stories that clarify our current state. He can also pivot on a random incident in his journeys to offer an impassioned plea for sanity about topics like student debt and the environmental consequences of Big Ag. But what he calls “the spirit of fun” is never far away. In chapters named for the months of the year (e.g., “Book of Days: February”) Fountain weaves together bullet points from the month, some neutral (“Nancy Reagan, age ninety-four, dies”), some pointed (“A study reveals that 99 percent of the top ‘One Percent’ wealthiest American voted in 2008, while only 49 percent of people making less than $10,000 a year voted”), and some insane, outrageous, and priceless. In March, for instance, Rush Limbaugh “criticizes Obama for flamenco dancing and ‘doing the tango with women not even his wife’ while visiting Cuba and Argentina,” and a creationist candidate for the Texas State Board of Education “explains the absence of dinosaurs in modern times” by the fact that “the dinosaurs brought onto the ark by Noah were too young to reproduce.” Each headline is offered deadpan, and we move swiftly on to the next. Although these chapters offer nothing in the way of plot development, I came to find them entirely compelling, the connections or oppositions between adjacent items elusive but strong enough to keep us on the move. Because Fountain never editorializes or explains the significance the items in his factoid bazaar, we have the pleasure of discovering it each time for ourselves. Of course this strengthens our engagement with his material.
Another force for readerly engagement is Fountain’s capacity to be genuinely respectful of his enemies and very entertaining, at times, at the expense of his friends. This makes his stories surprising and keeps the reader on her toes. His treatment of the Clintons is representative, provoking expectations of criticism only to praise their cogency, their right-mindedness on many matters, their outstanding (in Bill’s case) political skills … and later to indict them, jointly and severally, for corruption, hypocrisy, and a betrayal of the Democratic Party from which it is unlikely to recover. In fact, Fountain ends a chapter entitled, “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Any More” with a devastating wish: if the Democratic Party “can’t transform itself into an instrument of genuine resistance and renewal, let it die and make way for the necessary new thing.” The ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is increasingly rare these days, but Fountain has perfected the skill.
One of the greatest strengths of the book is its fiery exposition of the Republican Party’s exploitation of our divisions. “Politics,” Fountain quotes Henry Adams as saying, “is the systematic organization of hatreds.” Again and again, in anger and in clear-eyed, heartfelt sorrow, Fountain tackles our most pervasive and persistent hatred, racism.
“The Southern Strategy,” he says coldly, “was a considered, pre-meditated, highly disciplined appeal to Southern whites, and more generally to the deep-seated racism of America.” He quotes Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips arguing that Republicans should be glad to see African Americans registering to vote in the wake of the Voting Rights Act because that would activate “the [Democratic] Negrophobes” and get them to switch parties. “That’s where the votes are,” Phillips explains in a 1970 interview. “Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.” Fountain comments:
Well, if that’s where the votes are, then by God we gotta get down in that hog wallow and root ’em out! And so the Grand Old Party, the party of New York bankers, thrifty New Englanders, and wholesome Midwesterners whose ancestors fought and defeated the Confederacy and its slave-based economy, made a deal with the South. It took the better part of forty years, but Republicans finally found their answer to the New Deal.
Again and again Fountain comes back to racism as the engine driving our tragic decline, with people like Kevin Phillips, Lee Atwater, and now Donald Trump at the wheel.
A word about Fountain’s word choices. In an essay called, “Je Suis ein Americano: The Genius of American Diction,” Tony Hoagland argues that because the English language is a patchwork of other languages, particularly “high” French-Latin (dating from the Norman Conquest) and “low” Anglo-Saxon (the language of Britain before the Normans), it is “fantastically elastic and adroit.” Americans, Hoagland says, have taken that gift and run with it. “Our most minor communications,” he exults, “are studded with high and low improvisations.” Fountain’s prose is a perfect example what Hoagland means. His writing delights in its own seamless passages between high and low and sweeps us up in its pleasure as it does so. In the passage I just quoted, the narrator begins as if he were some folksy friend on a hot porch afternoon: “Well…” Then we move into the voice of some sleazy hack picking up the job: “we gotta get down in that hog wallow and root them out!” But this is followed by some very high, very stylish rhetoric, a soaring list designed to shame its subject, the GOP, with reminders of what it once was. From those heights we subside into the bitter, simple, unacceptable truth. The Southern Strategy worked, and the New Deal is dead. This is devastating news, but Fountain’s linguistic freedom saves the day, even when the news is terminally bad. It’s alive, it’s free; it’s a vastly better form of rugged individualism than all that camo lingerie and infant wear.
In the latter part of the book, there are some sections in which Fountain’s commitment to surprise and play seems to have been overwhelmed by the seriousness of the predicament he describes. In the chapter entitled “The Long Good Deal,” for example, he digs into another force for the demise of the New Deal, “forty years of [a] well-funded, expertly guided […] rich people’s movement” of “think-tanks, institutes, conferences, and media outlets.” If current trends continue, says Fountain, we might return in another 80 years to the nearly “medieval” conditions many of us lived in 80 years ago. The chapter is as brilliantly argued and authoritatively illustrated as ever; but as a reader I miss the wild, unexpected openings into absurdity, language play, perspective shift, and wit that are this writer’s stock in trade.
That said, there’s no one I would rather read on Where We Are Now. I learn from Fountain’s vast and coherent research even as I take pride in the amazing liberties he takes with his form. His achievement strikes me as peculiarly American, and to a certain extent it transforms the dreary tale he has to tell. If this country can find writers like Ben Fountain to chronicle its most miserable hours, it can’t be all bad.