Review: Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, By Ben Fountain
An American abroad in an unfair world
Sunday 26 May 2013
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.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Casual Vacancy finale review: Superb cast, luscious cinematography - shame about the confused ending
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut