Dallas writer Ben Fountain isn’t new to the American circus. His debut novel, 2012’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, tells the story of a group of soldiers—home from Iraq on a publicity tour to celebrate their acts of heroism—who find themselves thrust into the surreal excess of a Cowboys game at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. But when Fountain decided to make sense of the 2016 presidential election, he turned, for the first time in his literary career, to nonfiction. The resulting book, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, will be published on September 25, but it’s already proved controversial. Fountain, a regular at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series, was told that he wouldn’t be getting an invitation to present his book there. Fountain, who will be appearing at Texas Monthly’s Edge of Texas Festival in Dallas on September 8, talked with Texas Monthly senior editor Eric Benson about that controversy, why he chose nonfiction over fiction, and why he sees America heading for a reckoning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Texas Monthly: The Dallas Morning News ran an article earlier this month detailing a snub of sorts. After planning to present your new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, at DMA’s Arts & Letters Live series, you have been told that you’re actually not invited to do so. Could you tell me what happened?
Ben Fountain: Carolyn Bess [the director of Arts & Letters Live] and I were emailing back and forth, trying to zero in on a date when I could present the book. We were proceeding with the understanding that it was a given that they wanted to host me to present it.
We were getting down to a couple of dates, and the way it was communicated to me from Carolyn was, it came from the director’s office at the museum that she was instructed that Arts & Letters Live could not hold an event for Ben Fountain for Beautiful Country Burn Again. The reason given was that they felt like it was potentially too divisive and partisan, and the museum wanted to focus on inclusivity this year.
TM: What was your reaction?
BF: I have to say, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time worrying about it or thinking about it. If that’s the worst thing that happens to me this year, it’s a pretty damn good year. But I was disappointed, and there’s a feeling of, ‘Well, that’s a little bit gutless of the museum director.’ Also, what are they scared of me doing? Am I going to start a riot at the Dallas Museum of Art, and especially Arts & Letters Live, which is the most polite, courteous, decorous audience you could imagine? But these are tricky times.
TM: You’ve appeared at Arts & Letters Live before, and I think it’s fair to say that your fiction has always had a political dimension and hasn’t shied away from controversy. But it’s the nonfiction book that gets you into trouble.
BF: Maybe it has more to do with this particular point in time than it does with the material in the book. But in a nonfiction context, the message is going to be more direct. It’s just all closer to the surface.
TM: You’re best known as a novelist and a short story writer. Why did you want to do a nonfiction book about this political moment?
BF: Well, the opportunity came along to explore it in this way. The Guardian approached me in late 2015 and asked if I wanted to do a series of pieces over the course of 2016 following the election, commenting on the election and on American politics in general. In a way, I’ve been preparing to write this book my whole life, just from where my head and my heart have taken me in my reading and thinking and the things I’ve paid attention to. It gave me the opportunity just to delve into it in a deep and hopefully systematic way. I wanted to see where I could get, how far I could get, through nonfiction.
TM: In your book, you write that “our most successful politicians have all become fantasy novelists” and you talk about a “fantasy industrial complex” that is part of what brought Donald Trump to power. Was there any part of you that thought, “Well, maybe this nonfiction isn’t going to persuade anyone; fiction could be a more powerful tool”?
BF: Yeah—how far can rational analysis get us? I think it can get us a fair way down the road by exploring how exactly we got to this point. Ultimately, how do you change people’s minds? I think, in most instances, what changes people’s minds, what changes their perspective, is some kind of crisis in their life or a profound experience, as opposed to an argument or an idea. And I think that great works of art, poems, pieces of music, novels, visual art—when they’re working and if it’s the right person at the right moment in time—they can change people or open their eyes or crack them open so that they’re willing to entertain a different perspective or point of view. I think ultimately fiction, and art in general, is the way that we’re going to grow our humanity. But I think there’s very definitely a place for systematic, rational analysis that delves deeply into history.
TM: I hope you’re right, as someone who tries to do that.
BF: Well, it’s not a guarantee, is it?
BF: I mean, it may turn out really badly. You think about all the millions of words that have been devoted to criticism of Trump, much of it justified, some arguably cheap and sloppy and not well considered. But you think about all those millions or billions of words, and he keeps chugging along, and so you start to wonder what would crack this society open in a way that a critical mass of people would see the truth of him, which is that he’s a bullshitter. He’s a con man.
I can understand why people voted for him, because they’re angry and frustrated, and working people have gotten the shaft for the last forty years. But even the most basic analysis put to this guy would lead to the conclusion that he’s not going to help working people. On the contrary, he’s spent his entire life serving himself and those like him in the elite class. You start to wonder what it would take and if the tools we’re applying just aren’t up to the job—if something new is needed.
TM: Your book uses rational argumentation, but you’re not shy about painting these political figures in very colorful language. You call Trump a con man. You seem to have a lot of fun skewering Ted Cruz. Among other things, you write that he has the “skin of an avid indoorsman” and that his “happy face looks more like the pursed-mouth grimace of constipation.” Did you worry that language like that would immediately turn people off from the substance of your book?
If something rings false to me, if it rings inauthentic, if I feel like somebody’s a con man and a charlatan, I’m going to say it.
BF: I call it like I see it. If something rings false to me, if it rings inauthentic, if I feel like somebody’s a con man and a charlatan, I’m going to say it, and I’m going to calibrate the language according to my reaction to this individual. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by pulling punches, but hopefully you build credibility over the course of the book by doing that consistently.
I mean, certainly in the chapter “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” I go pretty hard on Hillary and [Bill Clinton] and the Democratic establishment in general. Hopefully, conservatives, if they stick with the book that far and they get to that point and they see that I’m being just as hard on Democrats as I am on Republicans, they’ll think, “Okay, maybe it’s not just partisanship that’s driving this analysis; maybe it’s something more detached and disinterested than that.”
TM: That chapter is pretty extensive and detailed and unsparing.
BF: Yeah. I didn’t know it was going to be that way when I started writing it, and it kept getting longer and longer as I got into it. I was finding some answers for myself and discovering things, and I felt like, well, it’s got to be this long to tell the story, because it’s a complicated story. Where I’ve come out on this is that the Democrats, for the past forty years, have been the party where, for working people and the middle class in America, things got worse more slowly than they did under Republicans. I think Hillary being elected was not going to change the fundamental power structure in the U.S.—far from it. It was going to cement it even further. But I think we’re still due for a real reckoning, a real crisis in this society, and we’re going to have to decide what kind of society we’re going to be.
TM: When you talk about the reckoning, I wonder to myself, is the reckoning coming, or are we actually in the middle of it? It seems like there’s so many points over the last decade you could point to as revolutionary moments. The fall of 2008 was a revolutionary moment because of both the financial crisis and the election of Obama. The rise of the tea party in 2010 was a revolutionary moment. The 2016 election was a revolutionary moment.
BF: Yes, but by and large, people have been able to go on with their everyday lives, or at least a critical mass of people have been able to. I thought there was a real chance that the wheels could come off in 2008—and they were coming off, but the center did hold. I think Obama and his people deserve a lot of credit for that. I’ve got a lot of criticisms of the way they handled it, but overall they kept the financial system intact, for better or worse.
So far, life has continued more or less as it has before, whereas with a crisis like the Great Depression, the crash was in October of 1929. By the fall of 1932, there was real widespread desperation in the country. We aren’t at that point yet here. But I don’t see how we can continue on this path indefinitely, given the difficulty of working people, middle-class people—given the difficulty they’re having just getting by day-to-day and month-to-month.
This post was updated since publication to correct the name of the stadium in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.