on December 2, 2006
I really don't like short stories very much anymore-especially the kind that appear in places like "The New Yorker" (which is otherwise an exemplary magazine) - for the most part, it seems to me that these stories are humorless, shapeless chronicles of middle class angst that start from nowhere and, if you actaully bother to finish one, conlude in a morass of pointless self pity- leaving this reader with only one agonized thought - "WHO CARES".
If those are your kind of storeies, do not buy "Brief Encounters". Fountain's stories are crisp, compelling and often mordantly funny - there's not a wasted sentence, really not a wasted word. And, best of all, THINGS HAPPEN, EVENTS TRANSPIRE, and you turn the pages to see what's going to happen next.
One hint that a writer of short stories or novellas or even full novels for that matter is the sense given to the reader that all of the information is so solidly shared that the writer must be speaking from autobiographical stance. Yet all we gather from the brief jacket bit about Ben Fountain is that he has won some impressive literary awards, is editor of Southwest Review, and lives in Texas with his little family! There is nothing to suggest a world traveler who has grown into the soil of the various parts of the world he molds into his stories. We are left with the conclusion that Fountain is simply a brilliant writer - and that is even more impressive.
Eight stories are served with exquisite writing technique, fastidious attention to detail, and an endless imagination for bizarre events that serve as a stage for characters at once participating in the darker elements of the world's doings while finding some sense of exotica on a planet that has heretofore seemed so blasé. He takes us to Haiti, explores cocaine trafficking there by both the innocent poor folk observers and the corrupt police force; he follows a devoted ornithologist in captivity in Colombia who gains insight into Revolution; he examines a strange relationship between a young lady and her older diamond hunting mate in Sierra Leone ('Being an American these days, that's sort of like being a walking joke, right?'); he follows a bumbling golf pro whose sad life catches up with him in Myanmar; he takes us back to the turn of the 20th century to uncover a child piano prodigy who is able to play a Fantasy for piano written by a pianist who shared her deformity of having eleven fingers; he deals with a couple who must cope with the husband's 'co-marriage' to a Haitian voodoo goddess; and he obsesses on tales of encounters with the ever-popular Che Guevara.
With each story he transports us wholly to the place of action and the interstices of the minds of the character he paints. Though this reader has not been to Haiti, Sierra Leone or Myanmar to check the reality of Fountain's prose descriptions there, the world of music for the piano is close enough to have profound respect for his writings about piano technique and music history and Vienna. Fountain MAKES us believe his stories, tales that are more like histories than fiction, so well drawn are they. Here is a writer of inordinate gifts. We can only hope he is busy at work crafting a novel to see how well his brief stories can be transported into extended form. Ben Fountain is most assuredly an author to watch! Highly recommended. Grady Harp, September 06
on November 13, 2006
The best book of short stories I have read in years. The usual complaint about literary short stories is that they concern themselves with insignificant domestic issues and ignore the larger world; and the most telling complaint about fiction that does address the larger world issues is that it is boring. Well, here is a writer who can enter into any part of the Third World, however remote, however alien to our Western vourgeois life, and tell a story with dramatic power, in a language that is enviably concrete and vivid, with charcters pulsating with life, with suspense in the movement of the action painfully intense, yet without any tricks of the trade. I have never read such goo writing applied to such a world-view. Whether it is Haiti, Thailand, Sierra Leone, Columbis--this is the familiar territory of human character, for better and worse. With such books as this, reading becomes the real staff of life.
This debut collection is welcome relief from the usual workshopped-to-death, navel-gazing, interior short stories that seem so prevalent in the U.S. Fountain likes to take his characters to parts of the world not particularly welcoming to Americans and put them in challenging situations. For example, he has a particular interest in Haiti (which he's visited approximately thirty times), and it forms the backdrop for three of the stories.
In "Reve Haitien" (originally published in Harper's), a chess-playing Organization of American States observer in Haiti following Aristide's 2004 departure agrees to help a charismatic guerilla member. The plot involves smuggling paintings by Haitian masters to Miami in exchange for cash the guerillas can use to buy arms. The story shares themes with several others in the collection, as the Westerner comes to sympathize with the oppressed native and tried to help. (The main point of interest in the story for me was the paintings, many of which were by artists whom my grandparents collected in the '60s. One minor snag in the plotline is that the paintings are described as being rolled up and hidden in a duffle bag, but most of the paintings by these artists in my grandparents' collection are on solid chipboard and rather harder to convey.)
"The Good Ones Are Already Taken" takes place in North Carolina, but also references Haiti, as a young soldier's wife eagerly awaits the return of her Special Forces husband from Operation Uphold Democracy (1994-95). The husband returns home greatly affected by his interaction with the Haitian spirit world, forcing the wife to work hard to understand. The material is somewhat over the top, but Fountain manages to make it work for the most part. "Bouki and the Cocaine" (first published in Zoetrope and available freely online) is a pretty straightforward story about some poor fishermen whose civic attempts to interdict the local cocaine traffic result only in the local police profiting. In an Robin Hood-style operation, they decide to steal one more load and use a Port-au-Prince contact to help the community. The finale is somewhat predictable, but enjoyable in the manner of an Elmore Leonard caper.
In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera", a graduate ornithology student is swept up by FARC guerillas in Columbia and must survive as a hostage for half a year. Over the course of this time (which seems to be circa 1999), he gets to know the guerillas and comes to understand their struggle -- only to have the carpet jerked out from under him at the end. Originally published in Zoetrope (and available for free at their web site), it's a fairly solid piece, if a little too precious toward the end. "Asian Tiger" (also published in Zoetrope and available freely online) is my favorite of the collection. Here we meet a divorced pro golfer of the lowest tier, reduced to playing obscure, fourth-rate tournaments. After appearing the "Myanmar Peace and Enlightened Leadership Cup", he is made a lucrative offer he can't really refuse (for the sake of his daughters' college fund). Through his naive eyes, the Burmese junta takes on an even more bizarre visage, as he accompanies generals on foursomes involving shady American oilmen, a spook, and Japanese suits.
It's out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the next story (which first appeared in The Paris Review), "The Lion's Mouth", visits war-ravaged Sierra Leone. A female American aid worker hustles to improve the lives of a tiny few, while also getting sexually entangled with a diamond dealer. The topic of "blood diamonds" has been well-covered elsewhere, and this story does little to add to the topic. It's also the third story in the book to involve some manner of smuggling, and while the portrait of the various rebels, UN peacekeepers, and shady operatives is keen, the story itself is entirely predictable. The title story is a series of five vignettes in which the author recounts his fascination with Che Guevara and his encounters with several people who may have known him. It's rather aimless in comparison to the rest of the collection and didn't do much for me. "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" is somewhat of an outlier as well, taking place in the music world of 19th-century Vienna, and following the strange story of the titular piano composition. It does an effective job of capturing the time and place, and there's a decent-enough story there, but it's so different from the rest of the collection that its inclusion is somewhat jarring.
On the whole, this is definitely a collection worth dipping into, but perhaps not as vital as some of the more enthusiastic reviews make out. One theme that is worth highlighting as particularly important is Fountain's representation of travel as privilege. In most of the stories, Americans "visit" the third world by choice and are able to leave, while those who live there suffer onward (and get exploited by Western business interests). I'll definitely keep an eye out for his Fountain's next work.
on August 24, 2006
The excellent reviews received by this collection led me to attend my first author's reading. I enjoyed Fountain's wonderfully crafted language which I appreciated even more in a second reading. Even more enjoyable and compelling, whether intended or not, was the moral complexity and ambiguity confronting the antagonists in each story. Our market-dominated American culture delivers information in simplistic bite sized pieces, which is especially dangerous when a similar approach is followed in national and international affairs. In contrast, Fountain achieves an elegance in descibing the inherent complexity and contradiction of individual Americans' however well intended interventions in the world. Nonetheless, he does not take the easy route of dismissing those involvements as naive, arrogant or futile. I was left hoping such insight would permeate our international relations. But mostly, it was a great read!
The common theme of these eight fine stories is that of a more or less ordinary person getting caught up in a political situation, generally in a third-world country, and discovering some point of moral principle in themselves which leads to a courageous decision and thought-provoking ending. So we have most memorably a graduate student ornithologist captured by rebels in Colombia, a washed-up golf pro used for propoganda purposes in Myanmar, and a US aid worker involved in the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. Despite the cover quotation from the Boston Globe, these stories are not "downright funny" so much as aptly wry -- squint windows on the human comedy. But the jacket comparisons with Conrad and Graham Green are to the point; Fountain has a remarkable ability to conjure up the physical and human atmosphere of out-of-the-way places, and his evocation of distant danger is palpable. As yet, though, he takes fewer risks than either of these authors; one soon gets to trust that none of these stories will end in calamity, and although this makes for pleasant reading, it may weaken the moral dimension that he otherwise addresses so well.
Three of the eight stories do not quite fit the pattern described above. "The Good Ones are Already Taken" is set near Fort Bragg and concerns a young army wife whose Green Beret husband comes back changed from a tour of duty in Haiti; the strangeness that Fountain captures so strongly in the two other stories set in Haiti comes over less well when translated to the context of an American couple and their sex life. The title story, "Brief Encounters with Che Guevara," is the only one that is virtually without plot, being merely a series of brief brushes with people who may have known Che, though it is outstandingly successful in touching a dimension that some of the more traditional tales lack. And final story in the book, "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," about a child prodigy pianist in turn-of-the-century Vienna, breaks from the others in both period and location. Instead of jungle revolutionaries, we have bourgeois pan-Germanic anti-Semites, a context much closer to home though less modern, providing a mirror in which all the other stories are reflected.
on August 7, 2006
It's very rare to find a short story, let alone an entire collection, that combines the pleasures of Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a journalist's eye for the exacting detail. Fountain's debut book is both a page-turner (you wonder what exactly is going to happen next) and a deeply felt meditation on human involvement in foreign cultures. At least one story has an odd historical dimension (the setting is late 19th century Vienna), but it, too, is totally believable in its attention to culture, history, and the artist's life. If this guy's advertised first novel -- coming next year -- is as good as his stories, we'll be in the presence of a very lively and important writer, indeed.
on October 10, 2006
The enthusiasm and praises for Ben Fountain's collection is well-founded and well-deserved, so I won't repeat them here. But for those readers who may be interested in a different kind of review, I would like to add here that my only criticism with this collection is on the ideological/political level.
While the stories here are careful to avoid, indeed subvert, certain stereotypes and cliches, they also tend to reinforce others, the long history and tradition of western ethnography casting its problematic shadow, threatening to reduce not just the characters and landscapes to hollywood-esque cliches, but also the critical politics addressed here into facile journalism. To be sure, Fountain does resist Manichean, or back and white, moralizing (as one reader below suggests), and certainly, he does not shy away, for instance, from looking critically at his first-world characters' position relative to their third-world counterparts, but ultimately the stories are haunted by what one might call the "heart of darkness" syndrome that still, unfortunately, informs much of western literary, cinematic and journalistic output today.
Having said this, however, my intention is not to deter readers from this book. On the contrary, the stories here are well-written, well-crafted and rare in that there are very few contemporary North American writers who overtly engage with political issues in their short fiction (perhaps a good comparison here might be Ward Just, or even Tom Bissel and Tony D'Souza, though personally, for purely political/ideological reasons, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the latter two). And as other readers have attested, there is a lot to admire here, a lot to enjoy and gain for those interested in good stories that offer not just engaging situations and plot, likeable characters and voice, but also the political broadstrokes of American involvement abroad. Particularly if you enjoy writers like Charles D'Ambrosio, Scott Snyder, Daniel Alarcon, perhaps David Means, Judy Budnitz, and even TC Boyle, you'll probably enjoy this collection. In fact it is hard to imagine that this collection would completely disppoint. And it is precisely for all of these reasons that I wished that the collection had been even more critically aware.
on June 3, 2014
Part travelogue, part history textbook, <i> Brief Encounters with Che Guevara <i> is a nearly-flawless collection of historical-fiction short stories sharing a common subject; namely, the stories are centered around first-world expats and travelers (mostly Americans) experiencing life through the accounts of both the brazen and the broken citizens of the "third-world," chiefly Latin America, West Africa, and South Asia.
Read as these Americans observe and participate in the outer edges of societies on the brink of revolution, war, and outright chaos. Though the protagonists of these stories are not particularly sympathetic (Fountain does not seem to be concerned with eliciting sympathy from readers), readers are afforded opportunities to understand the lives of common folks stuck in the middle of these revolutions, just trying to survive and, daresay, even thrive in the face of tyrannical rule in Haiti and Sri Lanka, or the roving armies of young and dangerous rebels in Sierra Leone.
The Americans in these stories are often granted reprieves and outs from the danger and choose to stay, learn, and grow somehow as a result of the building uncertainty. Certainly, I felt the same sense of growth in reading this collection. Not too often can writers blend urban renegade spirit with historical fiction, but Fountain succeeds. Standouts include "Asian Tiger," "The Lion's Mouth," and the Faulkner-esque "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers."
A must-read for contemporary short-story readers and writers alike.
on May 29, 2009
This book surprised me. I work at a library, and it was on display for the longest time. I finally picked it up one particularly slow day, and found myself sucked in.
Now, I'm not normally a short-story person. In fact, I usually reserve them for school or the days when I'm completely out of books to read. These aren't little pieces of fluff. They're actual STORIES. They've got interesting, somewhat quirky little plots that revolve around money and revolution and trying to do the right thing while trying to do something you love. I want to say that I never thought I would love them, but the stories did something to me. They inspired me. This is the first book I've read in years that actually made me THINK.