Brief Encounters with Che Guevera: Stories
By Ben Fountain J.D. '83.
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007. 272 pages. $13.95, paper.
Duke Magazine readers may claim Ben Fountain as one of our own, for he was born in Chapel Hill and took degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke Law School. His Brief Encounters with Che Guevera thus adds a vibrant new voice to the local choir of fiction and poetry. Enjoyable local color marks two of the collection's eight works. A Duke graduate student in ornithology is the protagonist of "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," and in "The Good Ones are Already Taken," a young Fort Bragg soldier and his wife "lived in a trailer off base, a modest single-wide down a sandy dirt road amid the pine and sweet-gum forest outside Fayetteville, or Fayette-Nam as it was known when Melissa was growing up, forty miles down the Interstate. Thanks to the mighty spending power of its military bases, Fayetteville boasted more clip joints and titty bars than any city its size in the U.S..."
When Melissa's Dirk brings back a practice of daily meditation from his latest duty, her reflection that Green Berets just didn't meditate, "nor did anyone else she knew except people from Chapel Hill," deftly places both her and the town.
Dirk has returned from Haiti, featured also in three of the other works. Two stories transpire entirely there, and the intricate and lovely title piece juggles its narrator's chance encounters with a handful of people who knew, or claim to have known, or were inspired by Che, including two Haitians during his visits to "the beleaguered island nation." Other stories take place in present-day Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar, and the concluding "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. The collection gratifies the armchair traveler with its exotic locales, and indeed, like all good travel writing, Fountain's stories transport the mind more directly than can National Geographic photos or their film or video analogues.
Fountain also satisfies with the imaginative reach of his portrayals of the downtrodden and marginalized, and particularly in his adoptions of women's points of view. His dialogue is mostly sharp and lively, and he can serve up the delectable turn of phrase. Melissa's cousin Rhee, having left a husband and "a life of exemplary conformity" in Lumberton to set up shop as a Fayetteville psychic, eats an India Palace lunch "in dainty garden-club bites, a style imprint from her previous life." Viennese music professors are "a congeries of beards." At the same time, the collection not surprisingly shows minor awkwardness. In ornithology and several other specialties, Fountain knows his chops, but he can stray out of his depth, as with his oddly hapless account of a Haitian painting—"As in a dream the dissonance seemed pregnant, significant; the sum effect was vaguely menacing." This sentence is a textbook example, by the way, of the writerly sin of telling rather than showing, which Fountain commits on other occasions. His "pregnant, significant" sounds pompous with the omitted conjunction, and when the tic pops up in a character's speech—"he's messing around with something evil, satanic" —it sounds like something no human would say, never mind the lame synonyms.
Fountain's ear goes tin in other ways too, as when he seems momentarily to channel a high Victorian—" 'They're so silly!' he cried," or "He flashed her a vicious look" —or when he promulgates the musty idiom "grab lunch" (or "grab a bite to eat" ), seemingly unaware of the unappetizing cultural strains showing through the verb's threadbare jauntiness as it spreads through U.S. English like kudzu—but don't get me started. The stories' over-reliance on open endings, and their occasionally facile politics—anti-Semitism bad, saving pretty birds from extinction good—also show stylistic encrustations Fountain should soon be able to slough off.
Even the strongest story, "The Lion's Mouth," set among diamond smugglers in Sierra Leone, exhibits some shying away from hurdles. The American protagonist Jill has paid ample dues organizing a sewing co-op where one-armed women, amputee victims of child-soldiers, can work in pairs. Jill rises still further above herself in the climax as she saves an uncomprehending band of mental patients from slaughter.
Yet as she realizes she must now face the dilemma of providing for these new unfortunates, bang, the story ends, without quite doing justice to such earlier passages as: "By then she already had the diamonds. They were in a cloth pouch stuffed at the bottom of her daypack… She'd slipped away on the pretext of delivering some letters, crossed the square by a small cinderblock mosque, and followed the street past rows of mud-brick houses and sludgy garden plots. Except for a few pot-bellied children she was alone on the street… In two minutes her blouse was soaked through with sweat. "
Writing this good nearly makes moot any carping about Ben Fountain's impressive debut collection.