”…I had no idea God and the Devil live so close together. They’re neighbors, in fact, their houses are right beside each other, and sometimes when they’re sitting around with nothing to do they play cards, just as a way to pass the time. But they never wager money—what good is money to them? No, it only souls they’re interested in…[Che Guevara in Brief Encounters...]”
Che Guevara never actually makes an appearance in these stories—just sightings of him—but his philosophy gets a workout. Sometimes events just have a way of confounding even a well-thought-out life, where every step is taken with good intentions toward some worthy goal.
Moral dilemmas face us in each of the eight stories and Fountain does not make it easy for us. The characters may decide to do something morally questionable, but their conflict is not resolved sufficiently to finish the task without second-thinking and regret. There is always another, starker moral dilemma right around the corner as a result of their first choice.
This first collection of stories won Fountain a heap of attention in 2007 when it came out, as did his first published novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012). His writing is clear and free of flourish, though his locations are richly imagined. In this collection he spans the globe, though he pays special attention to Haiti, a place that allowed him to explore in microcosm “power and money and history and race and the most brutal sort of blood-politics.”¹ The Haiti stories make me the most uncomfortable in this collection, yet it is the one place he’d visited and so arguably knows most about.
The stories highlight displaced persons confronting the world’s troubles: a woman is forced to share her soldier husband with his dreams; a captured American doctoral student in Colombia manages to continue his ground-breaking study of birds of the Central Cordillera; a peacekeeper in Haiti finds a way to save a piece of Haiti’s cultural heritage; an aid worker in Sierra Leone tries to finance her sideline sewing co-op.
A word might be said about the final story in the collection, which moves us back to the nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. The story is about a Jewish prodigy in Vienna facing racial taunts as she develops her extraordinary repertoire over a period of years. The tone of this story is so sharply different from the others in the collection that we must ask ourselves why it was included. The language is reminiscent of George DuMaurier’s story of Svengali and his creation, the beautiful songstress Trilby O’Ferall. This story would not have been out of place in a Maupassant collection. It may give us an insight into the author’s opinions on the dilemmas he poses in the previous stories. In all the interviews he’s given, I’ve not seen a question about the inclusion of that story addressed, though I might rest easier if I had.
It turns out that I discovered I have read this collection before, when it came out in 2007. At the time I was not recording or writing about my reading and so did not wrestle as thoroughly with the questions it poses. It stands up very well to a second reading (and more!) so I recommend the collection for packing the punch of a novel without all the words. Besides, this man’s moral compass spins in a world that challenges the best of our well-thought-out and perfectly inadequate solutions.
¹”A Conversation with Ben Fountain”, reprinted in the Ecco paperback edition of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, P.S., p.3
You can buy this book here: Tweet