Ben Fountain's debut collection of stories, "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara," has one of the nattiest covers of the year, a graceful riot of birds, scattered through with actual punch-hole perforations that reveal the blood red color of the hardcover beneath. The patterning of the holes suggests that someone has used the illustration for target practice. The central bird, a cute yellow-breasted flycatcher of some foreign sort, has taken one right through the chest. This serves as an apt metaphor for what's contained in the book.
The natural world in these eight stories is exploited to the point of extinction by men with the guns for material gain. The best of Fountain's villains practice evil so coolly they conjure the officers in that scene from "Apocalypse Now" when Willard is ordered to exterminate Kurtz. The hot room, the ominous turn of the metal fan, the cigarette butts in the tray, the latent glamour of all that impending death. Of a diamond trader in civil war Freetown, Fountain writes, "[H]e was deep in conversation with a glistening black man, but not so deep that he couldn't manage a little irony for Jill, a smug shadowing around the corners of his lips. They were talking diamonds, probably, though it could be anything, palm oil, bauxite, shrimp, titanium, rubber -- for a country with a ruined economy, there were an awful lot of deals around, and Starkey, who'd lived here on and off for years, seemed to have a paying role in most of them." And of an American deal maker in final negotiations over natural gas extraction with the foul junta generals in Rangoon, "His voice had an airy William Buckley trill, the adenoid lilt of gentlemen sailors and champagne sippers."
Fountain takes shots throughout "Brief Encounters," at Buckley, at George W. Bush, at Texas in general, at the U.S. military, at the folks here at home who like those things. This book has politics, and pounds its point home again and again: Capitalism causes pain and suffering for most of the people of the world, and no one, no matter what they do, has the ability to change it. The title itself alludes to this: Each of these stories is a brief encounter with someone who wants to do good in the world, even if that good is brought about by a morally repugnant act. Who exemplifies this logic more thoroughly than Guevara, espousing as he did such a love for humanity that he waged war for its betterment? Yet Fountain often also admits, as he does in the title story, "I've spent a lot of energy and many years trying to learn a very few basic things, which may turn out to be mostly crude opinions anyway. There's so little in the world we can be sure of, and maybe it's the lack, that flaw or deficiency, if you will, that drives our strongest compulsions."
These are urgent stories, end-time stories, where mass graves fill with the bodies of the silenced, where a kidnapped ornithologist in Colombia sends his FARC-like captor shimmying up trees to count the last mating pairs of Purpureicephalus feltisi in the world. Even the war-scarred rebel is moved to a lucid moment of feeling by the silly antics of the Crimson-capped Parrots. Nonetheless, his insurgent group will soon attempt to sell the forest to U.S. logging companies to finance their corrupt campaign.
"Brief Encounters" is part jaunty travelogue -- we visit Haiti numerous times, as well as Colombia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, the good ole USA (a military base, no less) and late 19th century Central Europe in a tacked-on finale -- and part brilliant reportage: "Tintanyen was a wide plain of shitlike muck held together by a furze of rank, spraddling weeds. You entered through a pair of crumbling stone portals -- the gates to hell. The mosquitoes at Tintanyen were like no others, an evil-looking, black-and-gray jacketed strain that seemed to relish the smell of insect repellent. [The O.A.S. observers] would tramp through the muck, sweating, swatting at the murderous bugs, hacking away the weeds until they came on a body, whatever mudcaked, hogtied, maggoty wretch the de factos had seen fit to drag out here. From the shade of the trees bordering the field a pack of feral dogs was always watching them, alert, anticipating a fresh meal."
The writing is literary and earnest, full of foreign languages and settings, and unusual and lovely words -- Fountain chooses Magyar, for example, when Hungarian would have been just fine. His prose is baroque, patient, precise and wry. It's also often very funny. A riotous scene in a story called "Bouki and the Cocaine" sees a troupe of abused local fisherman dress up as Papa Gédé, the Haitian god of trickery and death, to outsmart the men with the guns, and "Asian Tiger" watches a hapless John Daly-esque golf pro lose his wits as he's asked to help design a golf course in the middle of a live-fire war zone.
These stories display a fluency with what's going on in our world that's sure to elevate Fountain to the lofty realm of Douglas Unger ("Looking for War"), P.F. Kluge ("Biggest Elvis") and the current titleholder, Bob Shacochis ("The Immaculate Invasion," "Easy in the Islands"), with their literary antecedents being, most notably, Hunter S. Thompson, Evelyn Waugh and Katherine Anne Porter. However he's attained his material, Fountain knows the Third World; he captures Myanmar, for example, with a precision that suggests firsthand knowledge: "Myanmar what they used to call Burma, down in the heat-rash crotch of the world. Not the most politically correct place you'll ever see, they were on everybody's shit list for human rights and most of the world's heroin was grown there. It was your classic Third World basket case, complete with drug mafias, warlords, mind-bending poverty, and a regime that made the Chinese look carefree, plus a genuine martyr-saint they kept under house arrest, that sexy lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize -- whatshername? On the other hand the generals who ran the country were nuts for golf." His characters may not know Aung San Suu Kyi's name, but we know that Ben Fountain does, as he soon reveals in the story.
Occasionally, Fountain manipulates his characters too heavily in pursuit of a point, such as in the lead story, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," where the ersatz hero slips into lyrical soliloquies with a gun pointed at his head. And in one of the most sexually charged stories of recent memory, "The Good Ones Are Already Taken," a U.S. Special Forces sergeant on patrol in Haiti "marries" Erzulie Dantor, the black goddess of love, for some pretty darn good dream sex. Then he comes home to his wife. The potency of what Fountain sets up in the story, alas, becomes a non-event as the sex stays good only in the dreams.
Fountain has taken a lot of risks here. To witness the deal-makings of the end of the world from the front, he's set himself the hard task of putting characters in situations they wouldn't likely be in: an OAS observer smuggling rare paintings out of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a World Aid Ministries worker smuggling diamonds through Sierra Leone. Not that those things don't happen all the time, but it's the nature of these individual characters as Fountain has created them that makes his task hard: They are genuinely good people. Would they really have done that?
In "The Lion's Mouth," the collection's best story, the answer is a resounding yes. Deep in the war-torn bush, Jill must decide between friends counting on her to smuggle contraband diamonds into the capital, or using the stones to barter for the lives of dozens of people. No matter what she decides, people are going to get hurt. The scenes in this story are startling and great; the rebel soldiers when they step out of the trees, the nun who keeps falling down, the refugees as they walk on the road, all of them are real. The sentiment feels truer here, and what makes this story so good is that in the final irony of what happens to Jill and these people she's saved, the reader feels that Fountain has released his grip on his message to achieve a deeper truth. This story goes beyond politics to illustrate the exhausting failure of even our finest decisions.
Ultimately, these are stories about people, mostly American innocents abroad, who want the world to be other than it is, who pay the price for that hopeless desire. One would love to think that anyone in contemporary government, especially the Foreign Service, would chance to happen upon this book. But those who really need to learn its lessons are the ones who will pick it up for their attraction to that name in its masterly title: Che Guevara, the romanticized philosopher-warrior who so many of us wish in the depths of our nights hadn't been the killer that he was.