A half-dozen years ago, Ben Fountain published his first novel, the savage and blisteringly funny Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Centering his story on the “troops” that every true-blue American professes to love and support, Fountain exposed that support as fraudulent: concocted by government officials, to divert attention from bankrupt U.S. war policies, and by well-heeled con artists, eager to cash in on post-9/11 patriotism.
Now Fountain has followed this triumph with a work of nonfiction. Surveying the year that culminated in Donald Trump’s election as president, Beautiful Country Burn Again addresses the state of the union that those troops are ostensibly defending. Along the way, Fountain reprises “the daily outbreaks of absurd and disturbed behaviors” vividly displayed at political rallies, party conventions, and most entertainingly, the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. All in all, it makes for a rollicking journey, albeit at times a queasy one.
As a stylist, Fountain combines the talents of Ambrose Bierce, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson (each of whom he cites approvingly). Readers of Beautiful Country will encounter zingers galore. On Bill and Hillary Clinton: “If every marriage is unknowable from the outside, theirs is the Mariana Trench of marital mystery.” On Texas Senator Ted Cruz: “You’d think he gargles twice a day with a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil.” On Congress’s approval rating: “lower than cockroaches, head lice, and zombies.” And on Trump: “He is the bog monster of the American id, rising out of the masturbatory muck of our military fantasies.”
Amid such rhetorical pyrotechnics, Fountain has written a deadly serious book. In it, he offers a penetrating critique of a contemporary American politics thoroughly corrupted by money and moneyed interests. His pithy summary of the existing system consists of a mere eight words: “Profit proportionate to freedom; plunder correlative to subjugation.” In less highfalutin language, this means that in our rigged system, the well-to-do enjoy liberty and exercise power; everyone else struggles to get by.
Although Fountain leans left politically—his nostalgia for FDR’s New Deal is palpable—he lays into both major parties with equal ferocity. That the GOP exists to serve the interests of the rich he accepts as self-evident. Yet Democrats, in his view, have merely “made things worse a little more slowly than Republicans.” In recent decades, both parties have subscribed to a common set of principles, typically referred to via nondescript euphemisms such as the Washington Consensus or neoliberalism. The impact of these principles, to which no alternative ostensibly exists, has been lethal.
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