History, extreme travel, Cold War fiction in one impressive debut

Review Short stories

September 03, 2006|By Jim Ruland | Jim Ruland,Los Angeles Times

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara: Stories

Ben Fountain

Ecco / 230 pages / $24.95

Ben Fountain's quirky first collection of short stories poses the question: How do current events become history? These stories, set in foreign countries and populated with well-meaning protagonists who seek their American dreams beyond the U.S. border, explore the territory between yesterday's news and tomorrow's history books. This is fertile ground that combines the best elements of historical narrative, extreme travel writing and Cold War genre fiction. Fountain prowls similar turf to that of Tom Bissell, Gary Shteyngart and even early Thomas Pynchon, and he shares their fierce love of language and predilection for the absurd. Although Fountain anchors his fictions with the gravitas of history, he keeps his characters in the foreground.

You won't find tales of Aimless Americans Abroad in Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. These protagonists are highly motivated, and he wisely plops them in dangerous territory. We meet a possible spy in Port-au-Prince, a Green Beret under the influence of Haitian voodoo, a Texas golf pro paid to schmooze despots in Myanmar and a relief agency worker who dabbles in diamond smuggling in the badlands of Sierra Leone.

In nearly every story shots are heard in the distance; Fountain makes use of the rattle of gunfire the way some writers deploy weather phenomena.

The first story sets the tone for the rest of the collection. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an ornithologist wanders into Colombia looking for the Purpureicephalus feltisi - the crimson-capped parrot - and finds more than he bargained for when he is captured by rebels and held for spying. The birder's horror hardens to cynicism - a familiar occurrence in these stories - when he begins to view the vain, charismatic comandante as merely a career revolutionary. This suspicion is borne out when the comandante, who is prone to parroting rhetoric he no longer believes, sells off part of the rain forest under his control to American investors.

The stories in Brief Encounters With Che Guevara are rendered in a hyper-realistic style that brings the not-so-distant past to life. The sentences are breezy yet muscular, and the writing never feels too tidy or too careful. While Fountain understands that writing historical fiction set in other countries is risky business, he obscures temporal specifics to remind us that the struggles are ongoing. The conflicts that drive these stories may lack resolution, but Fountain reliably furnishes endings that are as crisp and conclusive as a cleaver halving a melon.

The least compelling entry is the title story, chronicling an American man's infatuation with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, especially the American's obsession with the revolutionary's death. The story is too brief, the angles too oblique and Fountain does not deign to penetrate the psyche of Guevara or the myth that surrounds him. He seems content to leave the mystique of the James Dean of revolutionaries intact. Given the slightness of the story, one suspects that Che's pop-culture status is being counted on to attract readers to the collection.

That's OK, because the two strongest stories have terrible titles: "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera" is impossible to remember and "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" sounds like something that slipped through the e-mail spam filter. This magnificent story opens with the tale of Anton Visser: a fictional 19th-century composer who "played the piano like a human thunderbolt." Visser is part Liszt, part Jagger, but with one notable difference: He has an extra finger on his right hand. Visser's showmanship and skill send women into histrionic convulsions in salons across Europe. Then, shortly after composing his masterpiece, "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," Visser is killed in 1831 in a Cologne tavern over a gambling dispute.

This preposterous yet utterly fascinating saga goes on for a thousand words before we are introduced to the story's protagonist: a 6-year-old Jewish girl named Anna Kuhl who shares Visser's freakish affliction and arrives on the scene 60 years after his death. Her parents take her to the Vienna studio of Moritz Puchel, who recognizes the prodigy's immense abilities and promptly makes her a star. Anna's playing inspires the anti-Semitic instincts of turn-of-the-20th-century Austria. When Anna announces her intention to perform Visser's notorious "Fantasy," the hatemongers become incensed and threaten to stop "this Jew-girl ... with her witch's hand" by any means necessary.

The real sorcerer at work here is Fountain, whose command of the arcana of European music and politics is nothing short of dazzling. "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" is a powerful tale about identity. The story expertly straddles the line between fiction that illuminates the past and history too absurd to be believed that is familiar to anyone who has examined the offbeat exhibits at Culver City's Museum of Jurassic Technology. Though the hatred Anna endures is a prelude to the horrors of the 20th century, readers will not soon forget the prodigy's response. Brief Encounters With Che Guevara is an impressive performance from an author with a gift for reaching into the past and producing something compelling and new.

Jim Ruland is the author of the short-story collection Big Lonesome. He wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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