Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

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by Ben Fountain

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The well-meaning 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. Ben Fountain's prize-winning debut speaks to the intimate connection between the foreign, the familiar, and the inescapably human.

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The well-meaning 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. Ben Fountain's prize-winning debut speaks to the intimate connection between the foreign, the familiar, and the inescapably human.

Editorial Reviews

Outside Magazine
"Ben Fountain writes deftly about fear and disorientation abroad in his first story collection."
Daivd Means
“Wildly plotted, astutely observed, and beautifully rendered.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Fountain has the storytelling gifts to bring the world home to us and a moral compass set to true north.”
Nell Freudenberger
“Fountain’s confidence in taking on real world problems is matched by his reluctance to pontificate or judge.”
Jim Crace
“It is such an unexpected joy, in this age of introspection, to discover an American writer with a global outlook.”
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.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Short-story collections don’t come much better than this. Brief Encounters With Che Guevara offers pointed prose, nimble revelation...”
Outside magazine
“Ben Fountain writes deftly about fear and disorientation abroad in his first story collection.”
New York Times Book Review
“An exceptional story collection. . . Heartbreaking, absurd, deftly drawn. . .”
Miami Herald
“Fountain ... gets his message across without forsaking characterization and vivid descriptiveness. . .a revealing view of the human condition.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“...Fountain’s stories reach for a broader engagement...This book is a step in the right direction.”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“Fountain... is the perfect author to convert people who don’t read short stories.”
“Superb debut story collection... Fountain knows the Third World; he [writes] with a precision that suggests firsthand knowledge.”
Boston Globe
“In this first collection the author brings the virtuosity of Greene and le Carre to tales of foreign adventures.”
Los Angeles Book Review
“ author with a gift for reaching into the past and producing something compelling and new.”
Buffalo News
“Fountain is a writer to watch; better, a writer to read.”
Seattle Times
Raleigh News & Observer
“…exceptional story collection…”
Boston Herald
“. . .wonderful. . .lush, sophisticated...very funny. . .Fountain is an original...”
Austin Chronicle
“The work of a talented writer pursuing compelling and complicated themes.”
Dallas Morning News
“Ben Fountain writes the kind of stories that Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene used to write.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“ ... Fountain chooses just the right details, metaphors, similes and rendered in sentences seem[s] as life lived.”
Baltimore Sun
“... an author with a gift for reaching into the past and producing something compelling and new.”
Houston Chronicle
” ...the ambition and global outlook of Fountain’s fiction marks a welcome addition to the literature produced in our state.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“He imbues each narrative with an understanding of international politics and conflicts, and the sticky moral complexities involved.”
“An impressive and entertaining book of short stories...”
Texas Monthly
“. . .finely crafted. . . irony abounds in Fountain’s mini-theaters of the absurd.”
Tucson Citizen
“[Fountain] is a gifted storyteller and his collection will blow your literary socks off.”
Deseret Morning News
“. . .grand. . . darkly funny. . . important as anything you will see on the nightly news.”
The California Aggie
“Ben Fountain takes readers all over the world, navigating the alleys of the human soul with an expert’s hand.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Ben Fountain writes the kind of stories that Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene used to write...
New York Newsday
“Exhilarating first story collection.”
Liesl Schillinger
Each of these eight stories is as rich as a novel -- high praise when you consider how many of today’s novels could be distilled into a short story. Throughout his book, Fountain makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange, showing the human factor that links seemingly diverse nations. Heartbreaking, absurd, deftly drawn, his stories bear out the offhand remark of one of his memorable minor characters, a Burmese golf pro named Tommy. "You know . . . this is what I think. I think most days the truth is just another possibility."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Six of these eight debut short stories feature Americans abroad, on modified grand tours stopping in Colombia, Haiti, Myanmar and Sierra Leone. As aid workers, soldiers and hangers-on, they grapple with some of the darkest circumstances in the contemporary world, their struggles made absurd by the ease with which they can and do return home. A few are honorably conflicted, including the NGO worker who betrays her diamond-smuggling lover. Others, including an indolent golfer who sells his soul along with his game, and a writer nursing an obsession with Che Guevara, draw less sympathy. Fountain seems to see both travel and introspection as amoral indulgences, which means there's serious writerly self-hatred here, since those indulgences feed his tales. The stories that avoid moral writhings for postmodern fable are his most memorable. When a Haitian fisherman discovers a drug runners' drop-off and tries to alert the police, only to find them driving shiny new SUVs, he turns next to the village's voodoo revelers-who have better ideas about what to do with the dope. Lively work, with much to detest and much to enjoy. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Many a protagonist in this solid, aptly titled debut collection from Fountain (fiction editor, Southwest Review) seems to carry a deep guilt about privilege. Whether a graduate student kidnapped by guerrillas while doing fieldwork on a rare species of bird in Colombia or a relief worker in Sierra Leone caught up with a diamond smuggler, these characters navigate the moral minefield of doing good deeds while being very human. Fountain quietly builds a story so that the cultural reality of its setting seeps into the most mundane love affairs, golf tournaments, or fishing trips (the excellent "Bouki and the Cocaine"). Despite their various international settings and plots, the stories are not overweeningly ambitious and are rarely emotional or enlightening. If anything, they fall away from conclusions or epiphanies, which may be their most potent aspect. Only one story, the anomalous and well-paced "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," about a piano prodigy in fin-de-siecle Vienna, strives for a Roald Dahl finale. Recommended for most fiction collections.-Prudence Peiffer, Cambridge, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eight powerful stories, most of them set in the world's grimmest corners. Well-traveled American writers can be hard to come by these days, and fewer still would go to the places where many of Fountain's characters languish. In "Asian Tiger," a golf pro who blew his shot at the big time gets work the only place he can-a resort in Myanmar, where he helps toxically corrupt military leaders work on their swings while they strike deals with equally immoral foreign profiteers; in "The Lion's Mouth," a charity worker in Sierra Leone struggles to make her relationship with a diamond smuggler jibe with her altruistic efforts to help the women who are victimized by that very trade. It would be easy enough to turn these plots into pat lectures about the injustices of globalization in general or Ugly Americans in particular, but Fountain's smarter than that; much like Graham Greene, he has a nuanced understanding of how these circumstances affect both native and visitor, and like Greene, he can approach this kind of material with a light touch, even humor. In the title story, the narrator learns that one of his coworkers at a moving company claims to have killed the famous Cuban revolutionary, and in "The Good Ones Are Already Taken," a special-ops soldier returns from Haiti to his wife in Fayetteville, N.C., where he tells her he's now married to a lwa, or voodoo goddess, to whom he'll now have to devote himself on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The closing story, "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," initially seems to be the outlier: It's the story of Anna Kuhl, an Austrian Jewish piano prodigy with 11 fingers who becomes a phenomenon in the classical-music world. But the author's main theme is alienation, andthe story's conclusion proves its effects can be as savage in a German concert hall as in the Colombian jungle. An impeccable debut collection; if Fountain can keep it up, he's an heir to Paul Theroux.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

Meet the Author

Ben Fountain is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and a Whiting Writers' Award, among other honors and awards. He and his family live in Dallas.

Brief Biography

Dallas, Texas
Place of Birth:
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
B.A. in English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1980; J.D., Duke University School of Law, 1983

Read an Excerpt

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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