“Cry me a river,” Dennis said through his teeth.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Cry me a river, it’s an expression. Basically it means all you guys can go fuck yourselves.”
“Oh. Well. That’s awfully sentimental of you.”
– Ben Fountain, ‘The Lion’s Mouth’
Stories—stories of all lengths from hundred word long flash fictions to epic novels—tend to fall into one of two camps: the action-driven narrative or the character study. The ideal one might suppose is a story where the plot and characters don't interfere with each other and instead work in-concert to create something truly memorable. It can be done but it’s not easy and there’s a danger you could end up pleasing no one. I think Ben Fountain might just have managed to get the balance right with this short story collection. The blurb describes the book as follows:
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.
The Boston Globe echoes this when it says:
It’s the word ‘adventure’ that I’ve a problem with. Most of these stories take place on foreign soil but there’s not a great deal of action in them. I mean people go places and come back from them so, yes, technically there is action but, for me, what holds these stories together are the protagonists. Not one of them is a cardboard cut-out waiting to have his head blown off although, to be fair, most of them are in locations where the chance of their head being blown off is quite high. Let me illustrate. There are only eight stories in this collection, all a little on the long side. In ‘Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera’ a young ornithologist is being held hostage in the Colombian rain forest:
[A]t 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.”
Really they don’t care too much one way or the other if he’s a spy. Probably better if he’s not actually. If someone’s willing to pay a ransom for him then he’s valuable. It seems unlikely but if you don’t ask…
They scanned his passport photo instead, then posted it on their Web site with a five-million-dollar ransom demand, which even the hardcore insurgents knew was a stretch. “Sixth Front gets the Exxon guys,” Subcomandante Lauro muttered, “and we get the scientist with the holes in his boots.”
The rest of the story consists really of Blair trying to get on with his business. He came to the forest to look at birds and, well, there were birds everywhere so why not look at them here; here’s as good as anywhere else. As the soldiers get more comfortable with him and less concerned that he might be any kind of threat he manages to earn a few privileges, the return of his binoculars and his own guide/guard. Time goes by—days, weeks, months eventually—and his research begins to come together but at the same time he also starts to see that there’s more going on here than he first realised. When the American businessmen arrive the scales fall from his eyes. Yes, the story has a plot and once we readers have put two and two together a fairly predictable ending but I didn’t mind that so much because I got caught up in the character of John Blair. Or Joan Blair as the natives insist on calling him. You can read the whole story online here.
The second story in the collection, ‘Rêve Haitien’, has a similar vibe. This time the protagonist is Mason, an observer with the O.A.S. (Organization of American States) assigned to Haiti. So he’s not a prisoner but he is very much a stranger in a strange land trying to get on with the locals as best he can:
In the evenings, after he finished his rounds, Mason would often carry his chessboard down to the Champ de Mars and wait for a match on one of the concrete benches. As a gesture of solidarity he lived in Pacot, the scruffy middle-class neighbourhood in the heart of Port-au-Prince, while most of his fellow O.A.S. observers had taken houses in the fashionable suburb of Pétionville. Out of sympathy for the people Mason insisted on Pacot, but as it turned out he grew to like the place, the jungly yards and wild creep of urban undergrowth, the crumbling gingerbread houses and cobbled streets. And it had strategic position as well, which was important to Mason, who took his job as an observer seriously. From his house he could track the nightly gunfire, its volume and heft, the level of intent—whether it was a drizzle meant mainly for suggestive effect or something heavier, a message of a more direct nature. In the mornings he always knew where to look for bodies. And when war had erupted between two army gangs he’d been the first observer to know, lying in bed while what sounded like the long-rumoured invasion raged nearby. Most of his colleagues had been clueless until the morning after, when they met the roadblocks on their way to work.
Mason rarely won; that was the whole point. With the overthrow and exile of their cherished president, the methodical hell of the army regime, and now the embargo that threatened to crush them all, he believed that the popular ego needed a boost. It did them good to see a Haitian whip a blan at chess; it was a reason to laugh, to be proud at his expense, and there were evenings when he looked on these thrown games as the most constructive thing he’d done all day.
Most are content to beat him and enjoy their small victories without asking too many questions but then he encounters a doctor “a mulatto, a young Haitian with bronze skin, an impressive hawk nose, and a black mass of hair that grazed his shoulders” who doesn’t need any help to beat him. The doctor realises right away what Mason is all about and sees too that this might be a man who can be trusted and might prove useful. And so again, as in the first story, we get to see under the skin. Like Blair, Mason also gets an opportunity to do some good but, also like Blair, things don’t pan out the way he might have expected and his experiences completely change his world view. You can read part of the story here (or the whole thing if you have a subscription to Harpers Magazine).
The third story is a little different in that it’s set in the US. In ‘The Good Ones Are Already Taken,’ a Special Forces officer returns home on leave but tells his wife that he can’t sleep with her:
“We can’t do this tonight,” he told her. One of his arms held her shoulders, sympathetic yet sterile, exuding a brotherly tenderness that scared the daylights out of her. “Tomorrow’s fine, we can do it all day tomorrow and frankly there’s nothing I’d rather do. But tonight I can’t.” He paused. “I can’t make love on Saturdays.”
Her lungs collapsed—there was no air, nothing inside to form a response. She found a reserve at the very tip of her mouth. “What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is—look, it’s sort of complicated. But there’s one thing I wanna make clear right now, I’m still your husband who loves you more than anything.”
Although this story takes place in the States the situation is exactly the same: how to get on with a stranger. In this case the stranger is the woman’s husband who has taken an interest in Haitian voodoo. It was part of his mission:
[A] standard hearts-and-minds tactic of the Special Forces [was to] contact and co-opt the local power structure. In Haiti this meant befriending the village voodoo priest, who turned out to be one Moïse Dieuseul in the remote coastal town where the team was based. Dirk’s near-coherent French made him the team’s point man for local liaison, and from their very first meeting Moïse showed a special affinity for the young American.
Okay nuns ‘marry’ Christ in the sense that they’re not going to take husbands on the physical earth and they have given their bodies over to spiritual matters but, as his wife is quick to point out, Dirk is already married and he had made certain promises to her, vows no less, so how’s this all going to pan out? You can read the whole story online here.
‘Asian Tiger’, the fourth story, is set in Myanmar, Burma as used to be, home of The Myanmar Peace and Enlightened Leadership Cup which is “a bush league tournament by any standard, not even regular Asian Tour but a satellite, the dead-end fringe of professional golf.” This description is understandable once you know a bit about Myanmar:
Not the most politically correct place you’ll ever see, they were on everybody’s shit list for human rights and most of the world’s heroin was grown there. It was your classic Third World basket case, complete with drug mafias, warlords, mind-bending poverty, and a regime that made the Chinese look carefree, plus a genuine martyr-saint they kept under house arrest, that sexy lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize—whatshername? On the other hand the generals who ran the country were nuts for golf. After thirty years of incoherent isolation they were building resorts and courses by the dozen, leveraging the sport into hard foreign exchange. Now they were holding a tournament to boost the off-brand national image, but there was a problem: who in their right mind wanted to come? American pros of a certain stature were offered all expenses paid, plus a ten-thousand-dollar guarantee, plus a shot at the sixty-thousand-dollar first prize against what promised to be enticingly tepid competition.
Needless to say no one with any pulling power—Nicklaus, Watson, Norman, Woods—is interested in having their name associated with the place. So step up Sonny Grous. He thinks he’s there for two weeks and then General Hla makes his pitch:
[T]hey wanted Sonny to become Myanmar’s ambassador of golf, their consultant on matters of tourism and sport and their host to visiting dignitaries and businessmen. As compensation he would be provided a car, a house, reasonable expense money, and a salary of twenty-five thousand dollars a month.
“Gentlemen,” Sonny said, laying on his corniest Texas charm, “I would consider it an honour to be your golf ambassador. Just show me where to sign.”
Now what has he gone and gotten himself into? Once again we have a fish out of water. He may not be a prisoner but he has signed a contract. And in some ways that’s worse. Maybe not quite as bad as coming home married to a pagan goddess but still pretty bad. You can read part of the story here.
You starting to get the idea? When I reviewed his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which he wrote after these stories but was published first here in the UK) my only real criticism as far as that book was that the author makes his point most convincingly within the first few dozen pages; he then he keeps finding new and interesting and then not quite so interesting ways to make it again and again. The short story collection isn’t as bad but there’s a strong theme of alienation running from start to finish; it never goes away. Take for example the last story in the book, ‘Fantasy for Eleven Fingers’ (great title), which is a bit of an oddity because it’s set in Europe at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. As the story is in two halves there are two people who are the strangers as both have the same deformity: in the first part of the story it’s the pianist Anton Visser, who has six fingers on his left hand, and in the second part it’s the young Anna Kuhl who has six fingers on her right hand; she is also a gifted pianist but when we meet her she’s only a child of four and we get to see her grow up and come to terms with fame and its consequences. They are both Jewish, too, and although there’s never been a particularly good time to be a Jew in Europe things are definitely changing for the worse. You can read part of the story here (unless you happen to have a subscription to Southwest Review).
Anna Griffith has written quite a nice wee analysis of the story here. What I like about it is that it made me realise that despite the facts these stories are easy reads—and they are, there’re no huge sentences, he doesn’t use big words and he keeps his character set to a minimum—there’s more going on here; the stories have interesting subtexts and clearly weren’t just scribbled off in an afternoon.
This is illustrated quite well when Fountain talks about writing ‘Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera’:
“I struggled with that story. I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations. – Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Late Bloomers’, The New Yorker, 20 October 2008
The same goes for the stories based in Colombia, Sierra Leone and Myanmar:
It's better to go. It would have been better if I had gone to Colombia, it would have been better if I had gone to Sierra Leone. You never know what you're missing. You never know what you don't know until you go. But you can't always go. You don't have unlimited time and unlimited money. And so you do the next best thing—you try to imagine yourself into these places. The way I did it was to read everything I could get my hands on and to talk to other people who might have information. If there were helpful movies or documentaries, I sought those out. I was just trying to soak it all up and imagine my way into it using that basic research and my own experience in similar places or similar situations. People write historical novels all the time, and in those the writer has to imagine himself or herself into a different era. I think it's just as valid an exercise to try to do that with space, with the caveat that it's always better to go if you can. But if you can't, I think with diligence and a lot of work we can get close to it. – Ben George, ‘A Conversation with Ben Fountain’, Ecotone 9
Every story is this book is well thought out, thoroughly researched, well-written and carefully edited. Two of the stories won a Pushcart Prize, and a third won an O. Henry Prize and, of course, the book itself went on to win both the PEN/Hemingway Award—for the best debut book of fiction—and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. The best thing about this collection is the fact that it works as a body of work, always a hard thing to do with a collection of pieces that were never intended to be part of a group. My only reservation there is, as I’ve said, the last story because it’s set in Europe and not in the present but it’s a damn good story, possibly my favourite, and so let’s not be petty.
Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon—most of which give the book four or five stars—I can see the book isn’t going to please everyone. The two things most people will have problems with are that, firstly, the stories don’t have neat punch line endings or morals and most leave you with a feeling of unease—like the wife whose husband has come home married to a goddess (we never really find out how that resolves itself) and the same goes for Mason who returns to Haiti but can’t find the doctor again; he’s left just standing there—plus, secondly, the stories are a little on the long side considering the payload they’re carrying; Fountain could have made his points in half the words. These are fair points but this is the guy’s style. Do you want to enjoy a large cappuccino or toss back an espresso? Do you want to take the scenic route or the motorway?
One thing I do have to say is that Harper’s cover is so much more eye-catching than Canongate’s. Didn’t like it one bit which is a shame because they’ve had a few decent covers recently. Thankfully most of us know better than to judge a book by its cover.
Ben Fountain earned a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, and a law degree from the Duke University School of Law in 1983. After a brief stint practicing real estate law at Akin Gump in Dallas, Fountain in 1988 quit the law to become a full-time fiction writer.
Fountain's first published novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was released in early May 2012. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy, is adapting the novel into a screenplay a new Film4 project in collaboration with The Ink Factory, a U.S. production company. As yet, no director is attached to the project.
He is the fiction editor of Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.