I loathe football and I loved Ben Fountain's Super Bowl-set novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It was the rare debut novel that established novelists were excitedly emailing each other about: "have you read this yet? You have to read this!"
And I love reading about politics. In fact, I unfortunately devote way too much time these days to reading political takes from anyone: novices, conservatives, liberals, socialists, pundits.
So when I got a copy of Ben Fountain's new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, in the mail, I was excited to dig in. A non-fiction book about the rise of Donald Trump by the author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk? This wasn't a political book that I would drag myself through: here was a political book I was actually dying to read.
Unfortunately, I tried to read it.
What Fountain seems to be trying to do here is to produce a beautifully written and powerfully emotional narrative book about politics, something like what Hunter S. Thompson used to do in the late 60s and early 70s. I couldn't make it more than a few pages in.
Here, after an introduction or two, is the first paragraph of the first section of the book:
Is Hillary freaking? Has to be with all those '08 flashbacks frying the brainpan, that 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. Put a tan vest and a "Bernie" name tag on him and he could be one of those grizzled old guys down at the Home Depot, you ask him a perfectly reasonable question about sweat soldering, say, or flush valves, he just snorts and walks off. A career socialist no less. And Hillary wailed unto the Lord: Why me? Down fifty point in the polls a year ago, Sanders has clawed almost even just as the thing gets real.
What an exhausting, irresponsible piece of writing this is.
Look, I covered a presidential election in 2012 — sometimes very badly. I understand the desire to write beautiful prose and to add so much color commentary that it feels like politics is something else again — a fancy novel, say, with big heaving sentences and all sorts of emotional intrigue.
But the most important thing about political writing is that it's journalism. And the most important thing about journalism is that it should be truthful.
Look at Fountain's one-sentence recap of the 2008 Democratic primary, in which Obama "rolled [Clinton] up like a Mafia hit in a cheap rug." Uh, what? That's not how I remember the long, dragging winter and spring of 2008, when Clinton and Obama battled by inches across the country. A mafia hit as Fountain describes it is clinical and clean and efficient and you roll a body up in a rug so that nobody sees what you've done; 2008 was nothing of the kind.
You might think I'm splitting hairs here. "Give Fountain his artistic license," you might insist. I'm sorry, but not here. What he's describing is not true. It doesn't even come close to an honest account of the 2008 primary season. And landing as it does at the beginning of an account of another presidential primary, it immediately casts Fountain's credibility in doubt.
Additionally, there's the lazy sexism of Fountain repeatedly referring to Clinton casually as "Hillary," while he proffers Sanders the dignity of his last name in the final sentence. Fountain veers back and forth in the early part of Beautiful Country by referring to Sanders alternately as "Bernie" and "Sanders." But Clinton is almost always "Hillary."
Defenders would undoubtedly argue that Fountain also refers to Bill Clinton as "Bill" in the book, and that having two main characters named Clinton can cause confusion in readers. Okay, but hundreds of reporters dealt with this same problem in 2008 and 2016, and many of them handled the problem of clarity without diminishing the stature of the presidential candidate.
And that characterization of Clinton [wail[ing] unto the Lord" that Sanders would dare run against her isn't interesting or based on any evidence. In debates, Clinton was generous and respectful to Sanders, just as he was to her. Where is Fountain getting this wailing and gnashing of teeth? It reads, to me, like he's slapping his own preconceived notions on top of actual events. This is an understandable thing to do in a Facebook post, I suppose, but not in a book that the publisher bills in promotional copy as "a sweeping work of reportage."
This isn't a review. A reviewer should read all of a book. Ultimately, I couldn't get very far into Beautiful Country Burn Again. I rolled my eyes again and again at Fountain's pretentiousness, his mischaracterization, and his conjecture. I finally abandoned the book when I realized the whole thing was going to be a bad Hunter Thompson impression.
Thompson was a necessary writer for his time — he brought color and life to a political world that was addressing an insane situation with sober politeness. We do not need a Hunter S. Thompson for our times. Our times are already too colorful, too eventful, too unbelievable. What we need now are serious and dedicated reporters to tell us what's true and what's not. Ben Fountain is not that kind of reporter. He's just another man with an opinion.