Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s author bio fills me with hope: he used to be a lawyer, but decided to quit the high-paid litigation world to stay at home and write fiction.  20 years later, this is the book that emerged, which has won numerous awards (deservedly so).  Without any reason to believe that he would be successful, he quit his fancy lawyer job to spend two decades writing fiction! That’s crazy!  And wonderful: we should all be so brave.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who assured me that the stories were funny.  I don’t feel that he was wrong, necessarily, as there are some great comic moments here.  But, this did mean that my expectations were regularly subverted, from description to title to the tales within.

For example you don’t ever encounter Che Guevara (not even briefly). Rather, he’s more of a metaphor or touchstone, a phantom emblematic of race/class equality and revolutionary idealism.  Though, in Fountain’s stories this idealism is often naive, while ethnicity and class are generally alienating forces (no surprises there).  The “brief encounters” are, I believe, the moments when the characters arrive at–or at least strive for–a deeper understanding of each other and the world, all without a smidgen of bathos.  In fact, their efforts to move beyond established convention are often darkly comic, but in a Flannery O’Connor or Franz Kafka kind of way (just please don’t pin me down as having compared Fountain to O’Connor or Kafka–his style is totally different, though there is some thematic affinity).

That Fountain (a Southern white guy) is so successful in writing about class and race without ever sounding didactic or in earnest to “give a voice to the voiceless” is, I think, part of what makes his book so wonderful.  These are stories about people, not thinly-disguised lessons populated by ethnic generalizations narrated by a pedantic social activist.  Fountain’s characters are extremely diverse, but Fountain’s depiction of this diversity isn’t self-conscious or congratulatory.

“Rêve Haitien,” for example, is ostensibly about the dismal situation in Haiti in the early 1990s where, “the overthrow and exile of their cherished president, the methodical hell of the army regime and now the embargo…threatened to crush them all.”  But what Fountain has really crafted is a story about the meaning and power of art. Or (my favorite) “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” where a Viennese eleven-fingered piano prodigy endures the antisemitism of Nazi Germany.  Saying much more will spoil the ending, but this tale–the last in the collection–is a lens through which you can re-examine all of Fountain’s previous stories.

Read the book.

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