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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.

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