Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
  • Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
  • Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

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by Ben Fountain

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The well-intentioned protagonists of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara are caught - to both disastrous and hilarious effect - in the maelstrom of political and social upheaval surrounding them. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an ornithologist being held hostage in the Colombian rain forest finds that he respects his captors for their commitment to a…  See more details below


The well-intentioned protagonists of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara are caught - to both disastrous and hilarious effect - in the maelstrom of political and social upheaval surrounding them. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an ornithologist being held hostage in the Colombian rain forest finds that he respects his captors for their commitment to a cause, until he realizes that the Revolution looks a lot like big business. In "The Good Ones Are Already Taken," the wife of a Special Forces officer battles a Haitian voodoo goddess with whom her husband is carrying on a not-entirely-spiritual relationship. And in "The Lion's Mouth," a disillusioned aid worker makes a Faustian bargain to become a diamond smuggler for the greater good. With masterful pacing and a robust sense of the absurd, each story in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a self-contained adventure, steeped in the heady mix of tragedy and danger, excitement and hope, that characterizes countries in transition.

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Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
With current affairs growing more painful by the day, and our reputation abroad tarnished, American readers naturally turn to literature with a global perspective. Who better to help us understand who we are and where we're going than our most articulate, thoughtful writers? It's our pleasure to introduce Ben Fountain, a writer with a sharp, provocative mind whose debut, a collection of eight short stories, offers both a journey to places most of us have never seen, and a view on life and war that's full of ambiguity.

Moral quandaries serve as a theme in Fountain's stories, spun in such a way as to raise the ire of readers, if not to leave them disillusioned with how things work in third-world countries and the way prosperous countries, like our own, bully their way in, regardless of the cost. The power of Wall Street is showcased in "Asian Tiger," in which a mediocre American golfer in Burma serves as a front man for a shady business transaction. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," a financial executive intent on striking a lucrative business deal with Colombian revolutionaries remains powerless to affect the release of an American hostage. With each story a fascinating portrayal of ordinary men and women wrestling with difficult moral decisions, Fountain has produced a collection that is not to be missed. (Fall 2006 Selection)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

By Ben Fountain

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ben Fountain
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060885580

Chapter One

Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera

I extended to the comandante the opportunity to walk the floor of the exchange with me, and he seemed reasonably intrigued.

--Richard Grasso, Chairman
New York Stock Exchange
Bogotá, Colombia, June 26, 1999

No way Blair insisted to anyone who asked, no self-respecting bunch of extortionist rebels would ever want to kidnap him. He was the poorest of the poor, poorer even than the hardscrabble campesinos pounding the mountains into dead slag heaps--John Blair, graduate assistant slave and aspiring Ph.D., whose idea of big money was a twenty-dollar bill. In case of trouble he had letters of introduction from Duke University, the von Humboldt Institute, and the Instituto Geográfica in Bogotá, whose director was known to have contacts in the Movimiento Unido de Revolucionarios de Colombia, the MURC, which controlled unconscionable swaths of the southwest cordilleras. For three weeks Blair would hike through the remnant cloud forest, then go back to Duke and scratch together enough grants to spend the following year in the Huila district, where he would study the effects of habitat fragmentation on rarelocal species of parrotlets.

It could be done; it would be done; it had to be done. Even before he'd first published in a peer-reviewed journal--at age seventeen, in Auk, "Field Notes on the Breeding and Diet of the Tovi Parakeet"--Blair had known his was likely the last generation that would witness scores of these species in the wild, which fueled a core urgency in his boyhood passion--obsession, his bewildered parents would have said--for anything avian. Full speed ahead, and damn the politics; as it happened they grabbed him near Popayán, a brutally efficient bunch in jungle fatigues who rousted all the livestock and people off the bus. Blair hunched over, trying to blend in with the compact Indians, but a tall skinny gringo with a big backpack might as well have had a turban on his head.

"You," said the comandante in a cool voice, "you're coming with us."

Blair started to explain that he was a scholar, thus worthless in any monetary sense--he'd been counting on his formidable language skills to walk him through this very sort of situation--but one of the rebels was into his backpack now, spilling the notebooks and Zeiss-Jena binoculars into the road, then the Leica with the cannon-barrel 200x zoom. Blair's most valuable possessions, worth more than his car.

"He's a spy," announced the rebel.

"No, no," Blair politely corrected. "Soy ornitólogo. Estudiante."

"You're a spy," declared the comandante, poking Blair's notebooks with the tip of his gun. "In the name of the Secretariat I'm arresting you."

When Blair protested they hit him fairly hard in the stomach, and that was the moment he knew that his life had changed. They called him la merca, the merchandise, and for the next four days he slogged through the mountains eating cold arepas and sardines and taking endless taunts about firing squads, although he did, thanks to an eighty-mile-a-week running habit, hold up better than the oil executives and mining engineers the rebels were used to bringing in. The first day he simply put down his head and marched, enduring the hardship only because he had to, but as the column moved deeper into the mountains a sense of possibility began to assert itself, a signal too faint to call an idea. To the east the cordillera was scorched and spent, rubbled by decades of desperate agriculture. The few mingy scraps of surviving forest were eerily silent, but once they crossed the borders of the MURC-controlled zone the vegetation closed around them with the density of a cave. At night Blair registered a deep suck and gurgle, the engine of the forest's vast plumbing system; mornings they woke to the screams of piha birds, then the mixed-species flocks started in with their contrapuntal yammerings and groks and crees that made the forest sound like a construction site. In three days on the trail Blair reliably saw fourteen species on the CITES endangered list, as well as an exceedingly rare Hapalopsittaca perched in a fern the size of a minivan. He was amazed, and said as much to the young comandante, who eyed him for a moment in a thoughtful way.

"Yes," the rebel answered, "ecology is important to the Revolution. As a scholar"--he gave a faint, possibly ironic smile--"you can appreciate this," and he made a little speech about the environment, how the firmeza revolucionario had banned the multinational logging and mining "mafias" from all liberated zones.

The column reached base camp on the fourth day, trudging into the fortified MURC compound through a soiling rain. They hauled Blair straight to the Office of Complaints and Claims, where he sat for two hours in a damp hallway staring at posters of Lenin and Che, wondering if the rebels planned to shoot him today. When at last they led him into the main office, Comandante Alberto's first words were:

"You don't look like a spy."

A number of Blair's possessions lay on the desk: binoculars, camera, maps and compass, the notebooks with their microscopic Blairian scribble. Seven or eight subcomandantes were seated along the wall, while Alberto, the comandante máximo, studied Blair with the calm of someone blowing smoke rings. He resembled a late-period Jerry Garcia in fatigues, a heavy man with steel-rim glasses, double bags under his eyes, and a dense brillo bush of graying hair.

"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."

The subcomandantes hawed like drunks rolling around in the mud. So was it all a big joke, Blair wanted . . .


Excerpted from Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain Copyright © 2006 by Ben Fountain. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Jim Crace
“It is such an unexpected joy, in this age of introspection, to discover an American writer with a global outlook.”
Daivd Means
“Wildly plotted, astutely observed, and beautifully rendered.”
Audrey Bullar
“Ben Fountain...blew me out of the water. These stories are absolutely jaw-dropping.”
Tom Bissell
“[A] brilliant...exhilarating book, filled with heavenly language and insight.”
Will Blythe
“[Fountain’s] really a bright light on character in extreme conditions.”
Nell Freudenberger
“Fountain’s confidence in taking on real world problems is matched by his reluctance to pontificate or judge.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Fountain has the storytelling gifts to bring the world home to us and a moral compass set to true north.”

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Fountain's prose is original and crystal-clear, with beautiful phrasings that contribute greatly to the impact of the writing. The first story in the collection--'Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera'--was my favorite, and one of the two or three best short stories I've ever read. The fact that the ending, which should have been a joyous outcome for the protagonist, was instead a source of infinite despair, not only for the character but for all of mankind, was a big part of the genius of the story. 'The Good Ones Are Already Taken' seemed weaker, and I thought perhaps Mr. Fountain is one of those male writers who cannot portray female characters with the same depth of character as the males, but he proved me wrong in 'The Lion's Mouth' and 'Fantasy for Eleven Fingers', which is written as a historical account and almost had me convinced that it had happened. The story that gives the collection its title also seemed weaker to me, perhaps because it lacked the moral confusion of most of the other stories, but all stories are written with an incredible adroitness, creating the 'orgasmic perfection' attributed to Tiger Woods in one of the stories.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain This book is eight short stories yes, but there is so much in each story that they could stand alone and maintain a reader's interest. This book is about that which changes us when it is least expected and in the most unlikely of places. Each story involves a person that had gone to another country or and is touched by some part of that foreign land and absorbs the land and people into their own being. Some unexpected skills arise to survive the situation and in other ways instincts appear on the surface to be strange and unusual but absolutely imperative to the overall survival of the situation. John Blair In Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera a PhD candidate by the name of John Blair is searching for a bird and finds him trying to manipulate a revolution. In Bouki and the Cocaine Syto Charles tries to keep his respectability and basic morale base while fighting the temptation when he finds a drug stash. Each individual story describes a place that is impoverished or torn apart by war or surviving the brutal aftermath of war. The torment of the people involved and the survival skills they had developed to remain in their home and on their property. What happens in each story is how all of this effects the person who goes to this place for their individual reason and sees the desperation and fear but also the capitalism and greed that develops among those who are the strongest in the group to survive. The stories are not easy reading and do not involve Che Guevara in actuality except for one person's overall obsession with him. The stories however are about the basic elements of human nature some which are good, some which are dark. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the full spectrum of reading with a realistic flavor to the stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written collection of short stories. Especially impressive is the author's ability to make the reader feel they are a part of the story too.
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