On the morning I speak with Ben Fountain, author of the award-winning Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), the presidency of Donald Trump seems to have tipped toward oblivion: Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has been found guilty; Michael Cohen, his embattled lawyer, has struck a deal with the authorities; the editor of the National Enquirer claims to have a safe—a literal safe (imagine!)—of secrets about the president. In the media, people are beginning to write obituaries for this White House. Could the end be near?
“Bullshit,” Fountain says.
This is followed by a laugh, and I understand why: Nothing Trump does, or has done, seems to matter some days—not according to any standard of common practice. Criminal acts get downplayed, shrouded in media extravaganza. With an administration seemingly free of consequences, we find ourselves wondering how we got to this point.
Beautiful Country Burn Again, Fountain’s new book, takes on this question directly, tracing the 2016 election, month by month. “I’m trying to preserve the record for people who are looking for answers,” Fountain tells me, “who have genuine questions about why things are the way they are. I’m not saying I have many of the answers, or even a lot of the answers, but I’m offering my most honest and rigorous take.”
In some ways, Fountain seems to be writing his way into these questions to answer them for himself. Beautiful Country Burn Again began as a series of essays for The Guardian, commissioned because David Taylor (deputy editor) enjoyed Fountain’s fiction and wanted to see that same brain at work on current events. “I jumped on it,” Fountain says, “because I felt like we were heading into uncharted waters, and I had a lot of questions: How did we get to this point? Where did Trump come from? Was he a complete aberration or a logical culmination of larger strands? What the hell was going to happen?”
This is Fountain’s first book of nonfiction, but he sees it on a continuum with his fiction. “The political aspect is just up front now,” he says. “But I don’t want it to only be information; I want it to be experience. That’s what changes people’s minds.” Certainly the experience seems similar to that of Billy Lynn, a novel concerned with the feting of veterans at a football game, viewing politics through the lens of spectacle—of show business. In retrospect, the 2016 campaign seems nothing but.
Fountain’s campaign essays move across modes: Some are analytical, some are historical, and others are purely experiential, as when he spends time at the Iowa caucuses. This is not a book of big, showy interviews with key players, nor did Fountain even find that a productive use of his time. (He mostly sees interviews with political figures as pointless cat-and-mouse games: a journalist trying to trick the participant into making a gaffe, which only works some of the time.) He’d rather observe, and rarely intrude. He admits, “I’m pretty hard on people in this book”—yes, on the right and left—“but I always tried to find language that would convey the strength of my reaction.” In other words, the outrage is not expressed through Fountain as “character,” yet somehow we always understand what he’s feeling.
One thing absent is any reflection on Trump’s presidency itself, even though more than half of this book was written afterthe election. “I felt there was a lot more we needed to look at and understand about 2016,” Fountain says. “Enough happened that year, we’ll be looking at it for the next 50 years, 100 years, making an honest attempt to understand.” The constraint of the book becomes part of its intellectual rigor: “If you can get into the truth of Trump in 2016, you’ve gone some way toward understanding the truth of everything else.”
Still, even though Beautiful Country Burn Again deals with the beginning, Fountain feels we’re not yet close to the end, no matter what recent news suggests. “What American institution is going to stop [Trump]? The shells of institutions are still there: the Supreme Court, Congress, constitutional procedure for holding high officials accountable to law. But whether the individuals charged with fulfilling the mandate will do so is the question.”
Of course, I’m writing this on August 24 of 2018; who knows what else will happen between now and whenever you read this? In a way, this makes a book like Beautiful Country Burn Again feel alive—a book that may breathe different air into you depending on when you read it. But these are the facts of 2016, and Fountain—along with the rest of us, whether or not we want to take responsibility—was there.
Benjamin Rybeck is the author of a novel, The Sadness, and general manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston.