Thursday, September 21, 2006

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain, the author of the stories in the collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, has been to Haiti about 30 times since 1991. I would have guessed as much, as several of his stories are set in the poverty-stricken country. His stories feel authentic, and the reader feels the humidity and smells the refuse. According to an interview, his wife has drawn the line. She will not let him go to Colombia, Burma (Myanmar), and Sierra Leone. Still, he has found how to write excellent stories about these dangerous places.

The book starts with a story titled "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera." Young ornithologist John Blair (called by the MURC rebels who kidnap him as "JoanBlair") uses the time of his captivity to study the crimson-capped parrot, also know as Felty's crimson. One underage rebel guarding Blair becomes his research assistant and shimmies up trees to count nests and eggs. When an investment guru from Wall Street shows up to negotiate a forestry contract with Comandante Alberto, members of the entourage decline to ask for the American's release, but they do offer the hungry Blair a supply of power bars. Issues of justice and ecology do not matter to anyone other than Blair. The end is surprising.

"Asian Tiger" is the fourth story. Sonny Grous from Linwood, Texas, who was once a promising golfer on the PGA tour, wins the Myanmar Peace and enlightenment Leadership Cup and becomes the golf instructor for country's generals. Merrill Hayden, an oil lease broker, pairs with Sonny to throw games to generals Tun and Zaw, much to the delight of Kel McClure from the U. S. Embassy, who tells him that a State Department study suggests golf will foster world peace. Needing money to send his girls to college, he agrees to chopper into a golf course development site in a combat zone. Sonny sees more than he wants to see.

In "The Lion's Mouth," Jill, a veteran of the Peace Corp and several assignments for NGOs, finds Sierra Leone really is really the worst of the worst. Working for World-Aid Ministries with women who have survived brutal amputations, she falls into an affair with a diamond smuggler. Needing to find funding for her project, she is tempted to become a criminal herself.

"Brief Encounters with Che Guevera" is a series of ministories written in the first person about a well-traveled American who keeps meeting individuals who associated with the long-dead rebel. As an old Haitian declines in health, the memoirist tries to reach him to tell him that Che's grave has been found, but it may be too late.

The final story is "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers." It is unlike all the other stories in that it is set in nineteenth century Europe (not the third world) and focuses on a young piano virtuoso with eleven fingers. Ethnic hatred derail her career. Perhaps the story is not so different from the other stories.

I hope Ben Fountain continues to write stories. He seems to be an expert in the field of American relations with the poorer countries of the world. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara should be in many public libraries.

Fountain, Ben. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 0060885580

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