Canongate £9.99

Review: Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, By Ben Fountain

An American abroad in an unfair world

By depicting a day in the life of a Texan soldier, Ben Fountain's first novel, which was published last year, provided an entertaining indictment of the greed, inequality and machismo that blighted America during the presidency of George W Bush. Several stories in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara take the superpower's temperature by less direct means and examine its relationship with the rest of the world through the experiences of protagonists in war-torn regions.

"The only choices we have in Haiti are bad choices," says a desperate man in "Reve Haitien", while another Haiti-set story, "Bouki and the Cocaine", introduces Syto, a fisherman who tires of doing the right thing in a place where corruption pays. When he finds a case of drugs with a considerable street value he cashes in, using the profits to build new houses for his neighbours. Syto fears that "sooner or later they'll come for him – the Americans, perhaps, or the gangs or the cops", but the real source of his dread is the knowledge that what he has done will add to his community's problems in the long term.

Meanwhile, the deprivation that well-meaning, young Americans witness in the developing world leaves them feeling confused by their own abundance of opportunities. They crave authenticity: a soldier is possessed by Erzulie, goddess of love, an NGO observer identifies "something real and vital" in Haitian paintings, and an aid worker in Sierra Leone is seduced by a diamond smuggler who "gave people hope, he made them feel close to something real".

This collection appeared in America before Fountain's novel, on the eve of the credit crunch, and he has a keen eye for the corrosive power of capital. The narrator of the title story believes that Karl Marx was right about "money's relentless genius for invading every aspect of human life". The horror of amputation is another recurrent theme and phrases reverberate across stories. A lonely army wife's "missing-limb sensations" in "The Good Ones Are Already Taken" gain terrible significance when, in "The Lion's Mouth", a "one-armed seamstress" recounts her trauma at the hands of boy soldiers: "Everyt'ing go red, red, like your mind on fire."

Occasionally, there are sloppy repetitions. Art has both the power to "charge the place with meaning" and "a luxuriance of meaning". When a golfer relocates to Burma, "Asian Tiger" threatens to become terrifying but instead fizzles out in a mush of implied menace. "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" isn't the only story which is diminished by Fountain's fondness for hindsight, and the way he interrupts narrative to describe how protagonists will eventually review events can feel like a failure of artistic nerve. That's regrettable because, on the whole, he writes brave, intelligent fiction.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power