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
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project