Excerpt from Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Beautiful Country Burn Again

Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution

by Ben Fountain

Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain X
Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2019, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Renner
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Print Excerpt

January
Triumph of the Shrill

One wonders how many tricks Trump poached from J. R. Ewing, another dashing jerk who crashed the scene in the late seventies and turned the common pieties on their pointy heads. No false modesty from these guys! And no piffle about giving back or serving others or the sacred public trust of the corporate sector, no apologies for having boatloads of money and always wanting more. The first episode of Dallas aired in 1978, precisely the time Trump was swinging his lowball deal for the old Commodore Hotel in New York City. This was the deal that put Trump on the map, and by the time the Commodore reopened in 1980 as the splendiferously flashy Grand Hyatt, Trump's TV soul brother was a mass-market American hero and international phenomenon.

Lorimar Productions intended for J. R. to be a secondary character. Bobby, the "good" brother, was supposed to be the star, a character the show's writers seemed to envision as an embodiment of the manly codes and virtues as set forth in The Boy Scout Handbook, 1957 edition. Bobby was loyal, trustworthy, kind, obedient, etc. Bobby was nice. J. R. was a snake and a bastard and cheated on his wife. Life has been imitating art for eons, but here was a twist on the old trope, art imitating life imitating art as J. R. hijacked Lorimar's creative blueprint and made the show his own. Lots of winning for J. R., those early years. He liked the ladies. He worshipped his father, a rough-and-tumble striver who built the family fortune up from nothing. J. R. did big deals, lived large, crushed the competition, and gleefully shredded the illusions of idealistic young people. He had a master negotiator's knack for vibing out the vulnerabilities of the person across the table. Amid the show's weekly dose of clunking melodrama there was something in J. R. that felt vital and real, and ratings soared as his character moved front and center. He was the hero we didn't know we'd been looking for, an update on the frontier gunslinger who just happened to do his killing in the boardroom. The man truly did not give a shit about anyone else, though there was his son John Ross—basically an appendage of the J. R. ego—a wide-eyed, eager tyke on whom J. R. was always laying life wisdom with a social Darwinist slant, a perspective that could be summarized as: Screw others before they screw unto you. Which rang true, out here in the real world. J. R. lied, cheated, and swindled, but no more than the system itself, and he was authentic in the sense that he hardly tried to hide it. His honesty was thrilling. One of the sublime cheap pleasures of television in those years was tuning in each week to see what new havoc J. R. would inflict on the hypocrites and chumps. He enacted perhaps the oldest of the founding American fantasies, the honky version of paradise where a white man is free to take what he wants. Nobody seemed to notice—it certainly didn't hurt the ratings—that we never saw the Ewings in church.

One can imagine Donald Trump studying the J. R. phenomenon and thinking, I can work with this. Just be myself, only more so. Larry Hagman tapped into the pagan id at the heart of good Christian America and found the role of a lifetime. For Trump the challenge was to take Method acting to its extreme, cultivating the raw material of his personality into an ever more authentic performance of himself. At this he seems to have worked very hard. Nobody has ever described Donald Trump as lazy. His artistry seemed to culminate in the fourteen seasons of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, in which he starred as Himself, the celebrity billionaire Donald Trump. For fourteen seasons of prime-time network TV this was how non–Wall Street Journal–reading America came to know him, as the brusque, cut-the-bullshit guy at the head of the conference table whom everyone, celebrities included, reverently addressed as "Mr. Trump." In a world where power seems so distant and abstract—where the mysterious things that happen in Washington and New York and Beijing filter down through intricate channels to the rest of us, usually changing our lives for the worse—here was a rare glimpse, however staged and hokey, into the guts of the system. If there was more than a touch of farce in the presentation—if the shtick got awfully aggressive at times—the core truth of the show could not be denied, for there was Trump in all his real-life glory with the planes and helicopters, the gilded office suites, the glam lifestyle, not to mention his own hit TV show. Art imitating life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum, one thing affirming the other in an endless loop.

Excerpted from Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain. Copyright © 2018 by Ben Fountain. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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