Thursday, April 16, 2009

A disturbing crablike agility - the short stories of Ben Fountain

I thought I had run out of recent books to review. Didn't plan this week of genuwine book reviews very well! But I remembered another, and even have some notes. But it's fair to assume that I've misremembered everything but the title and author. I could look those up.

The book is Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (2006) by Ben Fountain, eight short stories most obviously distinguished by their settings. Burma, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and four with some connection to Haiti. Hellholes, in other words.

Most of the stories are strongly plotted, and should be turned into feature films, assuring the financial independence of the author. "Asian Tiger," for example, about a washed up professional golfer who takes a job as the country club pro for the the Burmese junta. It has CIA agents, helicopters, explosions, moral compromise, and a big part for an up-and-coming actor. The ending maybe needs a little more punch to work as a Hollywood movie. As a short story, it's just fine as is.

"Bouki and the Cocaine" needs no help of any sort. A couple of Haitian fishermen find a big bag of cocaine. They hand it over to the police; pretty soon the police all have fancy new SUVs. The fishermen find more cocaine (they're on a Caribbean smuggling route) and turn it over to the mayor, since they can't trust the police. Pretty soon the mayor and his staff all have fancy new SUVs. And then a third bag of cocaine washes up. Now what? The only problem with this story, from Hollywood's point of view, is that every character is Haitian.

In the title story, an ornithologist is kidnapped by FARC and held captive in the Colombian jungle (hey, look, here it is). In another, a woman discovers that her Special Forces husband, home from a mission in Haiti, has converted to voodoo. Perhaps I'm making Fountain sound like a thriller writer. He'd probably be a good one, but that's not his purpose. He's interested in stories that demand a strong moral point of view, where doing the right thing is extremely difficult. Fountain reminds me a bit of Tobias Wolff in this way. A consequence is that he tells stories where something happens, where the changes in a character are not entirely internal.

Hey, zhiv, you're in showbiz, right? These are a sure thing, man. I should have been an agent. Or a d-girl.

Fountain's eighth story is a whole 'nother thing. "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" is set in late 19th century Vienna, and is written as if it's non-fiction, like maybe it's a New Yorker profile:

"The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary states that Visser had the hands of a natural pianist: broad, elastic palms, spatulate fingers, and exceptionally long little fingers. He could stretch a twelfth and play left-hand chords such as A flat, E flat, A flat, and C, but it was the hypnotically abnormal right hand that ultimately set him apart. ‘The two ring fingers of his right hand,’ the critic Blundren wrote, ‘are perfect twins, each so exact a mirror image of the other as to give the effect of an optical illusion, and in action possessed of a disturbing crablike agility. Difficult it is, indeed, to repress a shudder when presented with Visser’s singular hand.’” (p. 205)

Visser and Blundren are made up, while Grove’s Dictionary and Brahms and Freud, to mention some other names pulled in to the story, are, I am fairly certain, real, but it’s all seamless, except that Blundren sounds like he escaped from an E. T. A. Hoffmann story.

I discovered Ben Fountain through this Malcolm Gladwell piece, in which Fountain serves as a case study for a certain type of creativity (Che Guevara is Fountain's first book; he was forty-eight when it was published). The Vienna story, just as much as the ones set in Haiti or Colombia, demonstrates his craft, every detail in the right place, everything aimed in one direction.

I think a lot of people who don't normally read short stories would enjoy Fountain's book.


  1. Alright. A couple of days behind, but I'm on it. D-girl extraordinaire.

  2. Maybe Coppola owns the rights already. A lot of these were first published in his magazine.