BookBrowse Reviews Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain

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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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Fountain looks back on 2016 in a series of essays that illuminate the events of the year and the changing identity of America.

The United States reinvents itself every 80 years, at least according to "Apology for Bad Dreams," the poem by Robinson Jeffers in whose lines Beautiful Country Burn Again found its title. The nation's last reinvention was the New Deal, and in this book, Ben Fountain explains why the country is in the midst of its next great reinvention.

To explain his hypothesis of change, which he calls the "Third Reinvention," Fountain presents a series of linked essays that cover the span of the 2016 presidential election. Many of the essays were already published in The Guardian, but even with this reuse, the book feels fresh and new. Fountain is used to writing fiction. His novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, won many prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, but with Beautiful Country, Fountain proves that the truth can be much stranger than fiction.

The essays open in 2016 with the Iowa primaries, and the story unfolds with familiar characters: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Fountain doesn't spare any of the players from critique as he fills readers in on their histories and the lives of their campaigns. Each essay has a "Book of Days," an introduction that summarizes the most inescapable headlines from the month in which it takes place. While the purpose of these sections is clear, they can read like a litany of horrors, distracting from the rest of the story.

Though on the surface, the concept of the book seems like it would be limited in scope, the collection offers a sweeping portrait of not only American politics but of the country at a specific historical moment. It's like a Mad Hatter's tea party: a diverse and chaotic gathering. There is political posturing, conspiracy theories, the slavery-rooted history of police brutality, the Republican National Convention, a gun show in Kentucky, and a look back at Republicans' fight against Roosevelt's New Deal itself.

What Beautiful Country has that many political books lack is a quality of language that is both biting and poetic. Fountain shows his true prowess as a novelist by giving his real-life characters the same level of detail he would to his fictional ones. His prose makes the explanations of Trumpian psychology – of how his voters felt seen and heard by his speeches and the promises of his campaign – almost tolerable, or at least entertaining.

Unlike many other deep dives into politics, Fountain's searing, idiosyncratic prose surges like a freight train and often betrays his feelings. The first essay begins:

Is Hillary freaking? Has to be with all those '08 flashbacks frying the brainpan, the previous coronation spoiled by a grandiloquent rookie who nobody gave a chance, then he rolled her up like a Mafia hit in a cheap rug. Now it's 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.

This isn't your grandmother's poli-sci textbook. It also isn't for everyone. Fountain has a love-it-or-hate-it writing style that is unapologetic in its uniqueness. There is no other book quite like this one.

Beautiful Country Burn Again looks into America's dark past and equally dark present. Though the reader is surely well-versed in its plot points – and how the story ends – this book is more about the journey than the destination.

Reviewed by Rebecca Renner

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the October 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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