Saturday, March 1, 2014

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain

In his astonishing short story collection, Fountain gives readers humorous, politically-aware stories. Several stories are set in Haiti where political tensions run high but others are set in South America and Asia.  

In "Asian Tiger," an American golf pro finds himself in over his head in Myanmar where he is hailed as hero. He's paid well to be an instructor, but, in exchange, he is expected to participate in illegal deals.

Inevitably, heroes face betrayal by those they trust the most. In "Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an idealistic graduate student is kidnapped by revolutionaries.

He feels betrayed, however, by the Americans who airlift him out danger. Being rescued ensures the destruction of the near extinct parrot he is studying.

Like the hero in "Asian Tiger" and "Near Extinct Birds," most of Fountain's stories heroes find themselves facing absurd, self-serving bureaucrats.  

For instance, in "Bouki and the Cocaine," two brothers who try to do the right thing are targeted by unscrupulous officials. 

In Fountain's stories, criminality is normal while honorable actions (returning the cocaine, in this case) is crazy:

"I"m just looking for a little justice in this life."
"See what I mean?" said Alcide, rolling his eyes. "Totally nuts."

A UN observer in "Reve Haitien" finds himself drawn into the counter-movement's desire to free Haiti from an oppressive regime. The UN observer agrees to smuggle art work for the cause with unexpected results. 

The best story, "Into the Lion's Mouth," is about a jaded peace corp worker who nearly crosses over to the dark side--becoming a diamond smuggler's accomplice. That she can go from that to the courageous heroine in the end is testament to Fountain's writing abilities.