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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories by Ben Fountain

This debut collection from the man Malcolm Gladwell described as a genius took readers by storm. From the slums of Haiti to a golf course in Myanmar, and from the Colombian jungle to the diamond mines of Sierra Leone, Ben Fountain’s impeccable and devastatingly funny stories describe a world in political and social upheaval, and the lives caught in the balance.

My Review

These stories present some high quality storytelling, with a great sense of place and people, the author manages to get you in a place, amidst struggles and different lives. The writing flows well and there is possible strains of a Mark Twain like humour in the social, travel and moral writings here.
Excellent collection of short stories for reading, interesting encounters within the world that spins in and around Che Guevara and others.

Some of the eight stories briefly reviewed.

Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera
A hostage situation of a scholar a man with no money and no one to pay up for is in a dilemma of mistaken identity, they think he is a soy but his binoculars and map are for spying on nature in his love for birds. Nicely done short story, excellent story material used, the setting, dark humour, and great writing style makes this a great story to read occurring during a revolution in Colombia.

” “I’m not a spy,” Blair answered in his wired, earnest way.”I’m an ornithologist. I study birds.”
“However,” Alberto continued, “if they wanted to send a spy, they wouldn’t send somebody who looked like a spy. So the fact that you don’t look like a spy makes me think you’re a spy.”
Blair considered. “And what if I did look like a spy?”
“Then I’d think you were a spy.”

“During the day Blair was free to wander around the compound; for all their talk of his being a spy, the rebels didn’t seem to mind him watching their drills, though at night they put him in a storage hut and handcuffed him to a bare plank bed. His beard grew in a dull sienna color, and thanks to the high-starch, amoeba-enriched diet he began to drop weight from his already aerodynamic frame, a process helped along by the chronic giardia that felt like screws chewing through his gut. But these afflictions were mild compared to the awesome loneliness, and in the way of prisoners since the beginning of time he spent countless hours savoring the lost, now clarified sweetness of ordinary days. The people in his life seemed so precious to him— i love you all! he wanted to tell them, his parents and siblings, the biology department secretaries, his affable though self-absorbed and deeply flawed professors. He missed books, and long weekend runs with his buddies; he missed women so badly that he wanted to gnaw his arm. To keep his mind from rotting in this gulag-style sump he asked for one of his blank notebooks back.
Alberto agreed, more to see what the gringo would do than out of humane impulse; within days Blair had extensive notes on counter-singing among ,Scaled Fruiteaters and agnostic displays in Wood-Rails, along with a detailed gloss on Haffer’s theory of speciation.”

“Blair was twelve when it first happened, on a trip to the zoo—he came on the aviary ‘s teeming mosh pit of cockatoos and macaws and Purple-naped Lories, and it was as if an electric arc had shot through him. And he’d felt it every time since, this jolt, the precision stab in the heart whenever he saw psittacidae —he kept expecting it to stop but it never did, the impossibly vivid colors like some primal force that stoked the warm liquid center of his soul.”

Reve Haitien
Days after Haitian coup a two chess players meet an deal is forged to use art in a bid to aid a revolution. Another great tale with a sense of place, people and grande struggles.

“He led Mason around the palace and into the hard neighbourhood known as Salomon, a dense, scumbled antheap of cinder block houses and packing-crate sheds, wobbly storefronts, markets, mewling beggars underfoot. Through the woodsmoke and dust and swirl of car exhaust the late sun took on an ocherous radiance, the red light washing over the grunged and pitted streets. Dunes of garbage filled out the open spaces, eruptions so rich in colourful filth that they achieved a kind of abstraction. With Mason half-trotting to keep up the mulatto cut along side streets and tight alleyways where Haitians tumbled at them from every side. A simmering roar came off the close packed houses, a vibration like a drumroll in his ears that blended with the slur of cars and bleating horns, the scraps of Latin music shredding the air. There was something powerful here, even exalted; Mason felt it whenever he was on the streets, a kind of spasm, a queasy, slightly strung-out thrill feeding off the sheer muscle of the place.”

“On these nights the gunfire seemed diminished, a faint popping in their ears like a pressure change, though if the rounds were nearby the mulatto’s eye would start twitching like a cornered mouse. He is a man, Mason thought, who’s living on air and inspiration, holding himself together by the force of will. He was passionate about the art, equally passionate in his loathing for the people who’d ruined Haiti. You don’t belong her, Mason wanted to tell him. You deserve a better place. But that was true of almost every Haitain he’d met.”

The Good Ones Are Already Taken
This tale deals with a solider returning back home from a war in Haiti to his wife with a strange case of a voodoo marriage.

Asian Tiger
A Texas man out in Burma working at a golf resort gets involved in high league dealer brokering while escorting and coaching his budding golfers of powerful positions in the world of business.

“Shwedagon: he’d never seen or even imagined anything like it, a sprawling, technicolor theme park of the soul, ten acres of temples and statues and gem-encrusted shrines surrounding the bell-shaped spire of the towering central zedL Sonny eyed the zedi’s dazzling golden mass, its bowl base and tapering vertical flow, and after a while realized that he was looking at the world’s largest, albeit upside-down, golf tee. An omen?Meanwhile his guide was intoning the Buddha’s main tenets, telling Sonny that life is dukkha, all pain and illusion; that the cycle of thanthaya, death and rebirth, will continue as long as desire remains; and that through bhavana, meditation, one might achieve the proper karma for enlightenment and nirvana. Yes, Sonny thought, yes yes all true-he felt something swelling in him, a weepy and exhausted soulfulness, a surrender that felt like wisdoms first glimmerings, and coming down off the plinth he acknowledged the moment by passing money to every monk he saw.”

“Oh. Oh” It wasn’t so much a bribe as a, ah, gesture, a little goodwill grease for the wheels. It wasn’t long before Sonny realized that a giant corporate ratfuck was happening out on the course. If you wanted to do business in Burma you had to cozy up to the generals, and the best place for that was the National’s elegant links.
Which put Sonny in a classic trickle-down position: over the next few days he received a case of Bordeaux from Singaporean financiers a carved elephant from Thai teakwood barons, a kangaroo-skin golf bag from Malaysian gem traders.
‘ So popular,” said Tommy Ng in a voice like dry ice. “Two weeks in Mvanmar and look at all the wonderful friends you have.”
But Sonny was troubled —these people thought he could pimp for them? He was just the pro, a performing human whose job was to stun them with his mighty swing and tell colorful stories on the verandah after the round. They were all, generals included, relentless jock sniffers eager for inside information about their favourite pros. Did you ever play with Palmer? they’d ask him over drinks. Was Nicklaus really the best? Tell us about Tiger, is he as good as they say! If Sonny didn’t have an actual personal anecdote he’d make one up, something dramatic or funny to make everybody feel good.”

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Starts with a southern man has an attraction for a woman connected with thee Che, he later finds himself in Bolivia as a removal guy where he meets and has discussion with a man who says he was the killer of Che.
In his thirties he finds himself in Haiti and he’s now married with children. And your taken in the narrative on to his forties when Fidel is in power and the grave of Che has been located.
Interesting encounters within the world that spins in and around Che.

“School tradition required my parents to host receptions for the faculty several times a year, and it was at these gatherings —peeking with my sisters from the top of the stairs at first, then later as a fringe participant, serving punch with the help in my coat and tie —that I became aware of my attraction to Mona Broun. Mrs. Broun was a faculty wife, a trim, petite woman in her early thirties whom I confused for a time with the actress Natalie Wood. She had the same wholesome looks as the famous movie star, the same well-scrubbed, faintly exotic sex appeal, along with fawn-colored hair worn loose and soft, this at a time- the mid-sixties—when the women’s hairdos, in the South at least, resembled heavily shellacked constructions of meringue. But it was her eyes that got our attention from the top of the stairs,intense brown eyes with rich, lustrous tones like shots of bourbon or maple syrup, framed by sharp, exaggeratedly arched eyebrows like the spines of enraged or terrified cats.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 23 May 2013