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Saturday, August 19th, 2006
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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories

by Ben Fountain

Around the World and Back Again

A review by Jill Owens

Although his book of short stories had been sitting in one of many stacks on my desk for months, I first encountered Ben Fountain's writing in a piece in the New York Times Magazine. Eloquent, moving, and even a little funny, Fountain described the way he felt about returning to his hometown in the South for a funeral, after he'd moved halfway across the country. Both his prose and subject matter struck a strong chord, and his book rose to the top of its pile. In Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, only one story takes place wholly in the South -- on the contrary, the settings for these pieces stretch around the world and back -- but an uncanny and futile nostalgia affects all of them, a desire for home, physically and ethically, that never quite existed, but is passionately missed.

Fountain's characters try to do good, or at least they try to avoid openly doing wrong. Some are genuinely altruistic, and morally driven to try to do whatever they can to mitigate the damaged and dying countries around them. An OAS worker in Haiti, after patronizing Haitians by letting them beat him at chess, significantly ups the ante by smuggling folk art out of the country to fund a vague revolution; an ornithology student, kidnapped by rebels in Colombia, discovers a fierce, almost religious devotion to save an endangered habitat. Others are not so idealistic, such as the aging golf pro who moves to Myanmar to escape mistakes he's made in the States only to make others on a grander, multinational scale. But no one avoids their own scrutiny, their own failed obligations, however large or small. Fountain is adept at making explicit the complexity of any human course of action, clearly portraying the potent cocktail of fear, power, love, and revenge that informs all our tentative forays into the global tangles of modern life.

The stories in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara are poignant, empathetic, ironic, and, perhaps surprisingly, often funny. Fountain's characters are quite varied, though the authorial voice (the stories are told mostly in third person) does not waver -- Fountain writes in gorgeous sentences that do much of their work with transparency but can also stop you in your tracks. He is a writer of impressive intelligence and range, writing convincingly on subjects from diamond mining to voodoo rituals, and this collection is held together by his unsparing, hopeful, but ultimately deeply sad vision, which might be summed up in his own words, from the title story: "Recently it occurred to me that I've spent a lot of energy and many years trying to learn a very few basic things, which may turn out to be mostly crude opinions anyway. There's so little in the world we can be sure of, and maybe it's that lack, that flaw or deficiency, if you will, that drives our strongest compulsions."

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