Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop

I am reading this mystery way early from its publication date early in 2014 because I thought I wanted to read a horror story for Halloween. Many folks have already posted their reviews of this title, so I don’t feel like I have to wait to tell you about it.

This book would be the perfect vehicle to scare the living daylights out of an adolescent boy, since it captures many of those fears we all share but which an adult might recognize for what they are: simply fears rather than truths. Ordinary-seeming events turn toxic in this story very quickly.

A Boy Scout troop plans a weekend learning survival skills on a small and remote island off northeastern Canada. The Scout Master is the genial town doctor, and he insists the boys leave their cell phones and other electronic gear behind on the mainland so that they can concentrate on the task at hand. Unfortunately, the one shortwave radio available for the scoutmaster’s use is wrecked early on by an unforeseen visitor to the island. Things rapidly deteriorate from there.

Paralleling and periodically interrupting the straightforward action of the story are a series of documents explaining and relating the series of events on the mainland that led to the circumstances facing the boys on the island. We are even given the outcome of the weekend long before the end of the story, but read on to see how it played out on the ground.

The grisly and graphic details of the deaths that occurred are sure to keep young boys reading far into the night, for they will be able to see their friends and enemies portrayed as character types and will be able to guess who will survive and who will not. They may not be right in their guesses, which I expect will thrill them all the more.

One thoughtful Goodreads review posits that this title is targeted to juveniles and that this title would more likely appeal to boys rather than girls. She is very probably right in this, as girls have a tendency to mature slightly earlier and being the physically weaker sex, usually do not like to dwell on the ways they can be harmed. But I don’t think our reviewer gives enough credit to the author for having successfully winkled out those things that scare us (all of us) silly, for instance, worms swimming up your pee-hole. I have never met the man (or woman) for whom this is not terrifying.

That having been said, there were holes enough in the thinking or actions of the characters that the story did not keep me awake at night. But as a catalogue of those things that scare us, yes, our author did a fine job. Nick Cutter is a pen name for a popular Canadian author, Craig Davidson, who writes books that have been compared to Chuck Palahniuk. This year Davidson was longlisted for Canada's most prestigious and monied literature prize, the Scotiabank Giller. Cutter was likewise successful with this title, and has produced a popular cult novel that will be passed from hand to hand and whispered over late at night.

I thought the book entirely appropriate for 13-18 year olds. There is some bullying behaviors but the violence is occasionally so over-the-top that it can be classified in the "fears" category rather than taken for reality. There is precious little attention paid to girls or sex since this is a camp for the manly arts and the boys are focused on staying alive on an island, so their thoughts rarely stray off-site.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Prone Gunman
The novel is so tightly plotted one can barely tear oneself away. It is slim enough to read in an evening, however, if you are so inclined. Manchette wrote screen plays also, and the writing in this novel is spare enough to read almost as an outline with its own stage directions.

A hitman completes what he thinks is his final job, deposits his take with his financial advisor, then heads back to find the woman he left behind whom he hopes is still waiting for him ten years later. She hasn’t been waiting.

Machette is a master of cool, though his hitman does betray his nerves on occasion, by irritability, or by a tightening of the lips. The language is so un-upholstered, we zip along from one hideout to another, watching our hitman eliminate threats until his old boss comes hunting him down—for more work, or to close his file—we can’t be sure.

It occurs to me that someone learning a language could use this book to effect. Sentences are short and punchy and generally only have one clause:
"To get back to Paris, they headed towards Orléans, where they got on Autoroute A10. It was cold but dry. The little van went fast."
A generation of thriller writers benefitted from Manchette’s oeuvre. He brings the thrill back into the genre. How Manchette manages to grab (and hold) us with so little verbiage is the real mystery.

City Lights Books publishes this novel and 3 to Kill. The New York Review of Books publishes Fatale. I have been heavy into things French since beginning the TV series available to stream on Netflix called SPIRAL. If you haven't seen it, you are missing something grand.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

”What wrecked it all were two things: honesty and sex. Duffy, like most coppers, had a slightly flexible approach to the truth. You had to if you wanted to survive: not survive as a copper, but survive within yourself. The zealots who saw truth as indivisible ended up either A10 or the cuckoo farm. Most of the time you stuck to the truth as closely as you could, but were prepared to bend with the breeze if necessary. Sometimes, for instance, it might be necessary to tell a little lie, fiddle your notebook just a bit, in order to make sure that a much bigger lie didn’t get to pass itself off as the truth. On those occasions you felt bad for a bit, though you knew you didn’t have any choice in the matter.

But Duffy, like most coppers, knew that you always drew a line somewhere. You might tidy up your verbals a bit, fiddle your evidence slightly, forget a little something, but you always knew why you were doing it: you were fixing the record in favor of justice…”

Dan Kavanagh is the pen name of Julian Barnes, that prize-winning novelist we all admire so well. Here he allows his imagination to run free among the whores, bent coppers, dirty-bookshop owners, and crime lords in London’s Soho district and shows us once again his extraordinary talent. First published in 1986, this short novel (how I appreciate Barnes’ brevity once again) showcases Barnes’ sense of humor, his broad sense of inclusion, and his deep knowledge of human motivation.

This is the seedier side of London, but at no point do we feel the despair one might expect to find. Rather, a burble of laughter percolates gently through wild scenes of double-crosses and paybacks, with our bi-sexual ex-copper Duffy showing us the way.
”McKechnie rose to shake hands with Duffy. He was a bit surprised how short the security man was, but he looked quite strong. He also looked a bit of a faggot to McKechnie’s eye. He wondered about that gold stud in his ear. Was it just fashion, or was it some sort of sexual signal? McKechnie didn’t know any more. In the old days you knew precisely where you were: all the codes were worked out, you could tell who did and who didn’t, who was and who wasn’t. Even a few years ago you could still not go wildly wrong; but nowadays the only way of being quite sure who was what and who did what was when you asked your secretary to clean your glasses and she took off her knickers to do it with.”

As far as I know, Barnes only wrote four Duffy novels, all published in the 1980s. They can be purchased individually or as an Omnibus. This is a tasty treat for those who admire a well-written crime story from someone with a devilish sense of funny.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Dear Life: StoriesI have read Alice Munro time and again over the years, not with compulsion but with curiosity, and her stories never entirely worked for me. If I might be so bold, I might say that there seemed too many words. There is a book of hers which seems the height of her skills, however, written in 2001: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. In it one senses a muscularity and an ease that is not as noticeable in some of her other collections.

So, this may be a meditation on Nobel Prizes for Literature as well as a review of Munro’s latest collection. The Nobel Committee has confounded me on occasion, but I have always thought they must know more, have read more, knew the big picture. And perhaps they do. But still I wonder about some of their choices in the past, specifically Mo Yan and Elfriede Jelinek. However, after reading the stories in this book and trying to review it which meant I had to look closer at what worked and what didn’t, I get it. There is something quite remarkable about someone who has spent her life writing short stories, not stories “as practice for a novel” as she once remarked. With her skill she elevates the story to literature that stands on its own, yes, like the Russian greats.

Friends of mine have said their favorite story in Dear Life is “Amundsen.” I agree it is a wonderful story: delicious, dark, complete. Another I would choose for the favorites category is “Corrie,” which slyly reveals human nature and has a propulsion all its own. There is a moment of real tension towards the end of that story that makes us imagine all that can come of our not-so-lofty moral choices.

Another thing about Munro’s work: it feels Canadian. It doesn’t feel American, European, or any other thing. She mentions trees and shrubs and birds common to North America, but somehow the place she writes about feels distant, a little lonely, a little chilly, a little spare. Towards the end of this collection, in “Night”, Munro locates us more specifically:
”This conversation with my mother would probably have taken place in the Easter holidays, when all the snowstorms and snow mountains had vanished and the creeks were in flood, laying hold of anything they could get at, and the brazen summer was just looming ahead. Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”

There is a difference between stories written recently, looking back fifty years and stories written fifty years ago. I don’t know why. Theoretically, one could make the two merge until indistinguishable from one another. While part of it may be simply the author’s personal growth in confidence, language skills, or in wisdom, it might have something to do with that wider view that we all share now that simply was not imaginable fifty years ago. Individual universes were so small then.

What strikes me about Dear Life is how old some of the stories seem. Some are placed in the 1950s, some in the 1960s or 70s; some (e.g., “Amundsen”, “Train”) may even have been written then. What gives me that impression is hard to say. Her characters are from a different time. I suspect Munro had at least some of these stories in a drawer somewhere and she pulled them out years later to discover there is something there after all. She polished them with the knowledge and skills she has now, and voilà!

There is nothing wrong with this, in case you were thinking I was being critical. All life-long writers must have bits and pieces put away, like any crafter, who finally sees the value of a piece made early on, either for its bluntness or because the writer’s instincts were developed even then. Writers can do whatever they think they can get away with, and since Munro has said more than once “this is the last of it,” one somehow imagines that this is the last of what she’d had in the drawer, with a few new ones thrown in because she couldn’t help herself.

Now that she is recognized with a Nobel, one wonders if she won’t just scribble along just as always, for posterity’s sake. Unless, and I guess some writers feel this way, it was always difficult to write, bleeding like that onto the page, imagining someone else’s life, but doing it under compulsion. Perhaps she’s been saying she is no longer feeling that compulsion, and is happy to allow her legacy to speak for itself. Fair enough.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland I am hoping to ‘fillet a stone’ in this review, and separate Lahiri’s writing from her story in this, her latest novel. Lahiri has lavish gifts when it comes to writing. Although Interpreter of Maladies won so many awards and gave her encouragement perhaps, I preferred another book of linked stories, Unaccustomed Earth, for its deep insights, faultless language, and for peeling the veil from a culture I can never hope to know intimately.

The writing in this, her latest novel, was, I thought, workmanlike and studious--like her characters in a way, scientists and PhDs, both. And it was too long and wordy, like a dissertation maybe. Regarding the story, for me it held little drama, and seemed a long litany of history for not-so-interesting characters. I did get a sense of Indian culture as scrappy and vibrant at the same time it is smothering and crushing. I do think Lahiri did a good job with the expatriate/immigrant experience—that sense of dislocation and living at a remove. I also thought the inter-national love affair between Holly and Subhash in Rhode Island rang true, neither of the lovers imagining for a moment their families would accept ‘a foreigner’ and they themselves lack the experience and confidence to transgress the life expected of them. And Lahiri gave us some nice images: “[Bela, the baby] breathed with her whole body…like an animal.”

Though I am not intimately familiar with Indian lifestyle practices, Lahiri did have me trying to manage feelings of outrage and disbelief about the way Subhash withheld Bela’s parentage from her, despite Bela’s difficult time adjusting when her mother did a runner. It is difficult for me to empathize with an educated man (and woman) of any nationality who watch with equanimity their family disintegrate and do nothing to prevent it, even when the mental health of the child in their care is at stake. I’m sure there are folks out there that act this way, but when Lahiri says Bela came back and thanked her father for not telling her he was her stepfather, I thought perhaps we stepped off the reality train. Maybe it is so—they are Lahiri’s characters after all—but it all felt a little far out there to American me.

Another way to look at this book is that it is unadorned, cruel, and often boring--just like life itself. Anita Chaudhuri, an editor at Psychologies magazine, tweeted of the book: "One of the bravest books I've ever read, no tricks, no jokes, just life." I guess that is true, too. It may not be what we want to hear or how we want to live, but there it is, like it or not.

This book was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, which was awarded instead to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It is also a finalist for 2013 The National Book Award for fiction.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Caught by Lisa Moore

“Slaney had to believe there was a connection between people. He had to believe trust was pure too. It was worth fighting for. He trusted Hearn. He could say that out loud. It would be better that way. And he had no choice. Trust lit up on its own sometimes without cause, and there was no way to extinguish that kind of trust.”

Lisa Moore has an unusual writing style. There is an untutored quality to her writing that feels unique and unpracticed. It makes this reader slow down, and read more thoughtfully. There is no formula. The things Moore chooses to highlight in her writing somehow lead readers down the rabbit hole of associations and one is drawn into her fiction almost against our will.

In this novel, the young man Slaney escapes from his jail sentence for importing narcotics into Newfoundland and seeks out his former partner for another swing at the piñata. If writers write about what they know, the reader can’t help but wonder which side of this story Lisa Moore knows most about—the drug running or the law enforcement side. She makes it into a spine-tingling story, with a young man evading the law following him at every turn.

We have a slightly queasy feeling in the beginning, knowing our man means to try his hand at drugs again, despite having lost four years of his twenty-five to the inside. We know early on, too, that the police know his whereabouts and are allowing him to think himself free. Then there is the title, about which, even halfway through, we are still not sure. We want to suspend belief. We come to admire our man Slaney. He is so focused, dogged, and somehow pure in his devotion to an idea.
“It was the certainty that satisfied some desire in the audience. The best stories, he thought, we’ve known the end from the beginning.”

This novel has been shortlisted for Canada’s largest literary prize, the Scotiabank $50K Giller Prize, and for the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prize. Moore had been Giller-nominated twice previously, for Open (2002) and Alligator (2005). Her 2010 novel February, about the Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster on Valentine’s Day 1982, was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and won the 2013 Canada Reads award.

This year’s Giller Prize jury features Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Letham, and the other shortlist novelists are Dennis Bock (Going Home Again, HarperCollins); Lynn Coady (Hellgoing: Stories, House of Anansi Press); Craig Davidson (Cataract City, Doubleday Canada); and Dan Vyleta (The Crooked Maid, HarperCollins). The winner will be announced on November 5, 2013.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This Booker-prize winner is a slim thing. It reflects the history, the thoughts, and the imaginings of a perfectly ordinary man who passes quickly in these pages from a rather cliquish schoolboy, Tony, with three main male friends and a girl-antagonist (to distinguish her from girl-friend), to a conservative, cautious, and very possibly boring adult. How nice he is able to survive his own life, for after all “history is written by survivors”:
”The less time there remains in your life, the less you want to waste it. That’s logical, isn’t it? Though how you use the saved-up hours…well, that’s another thing I wouldn’t have predicted in youth. For instance, I spend a lot of time clearing things up—and I’m not even a messy person. But it’s one of the modest satisfactions of age. I aim for tidiness; I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep up its value; I’ve made my will; and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or so I’ve persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness, even peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess, and I don’t like leaving a mess. I’ve opted for cremation, if you want to know.”

Our man Tony is satisfied with his life and how he’s managed it. More importantly, he is infuriatingly male, illustrating that insulated and even sometimes insular male mind (they can’t help it, can they?) that is one big reason women divorce them after years of marriage.

But how beautifully Barnes does it! We giggle with his halting revelations from schoolboy to adult and into middle age. There is a mystery here that centers around that girl-antagonist, Veronica. Reviews I have read speak of some shocking outcome at the end of this book…not so for me. Do I show my age or my wisdom or merely my sex when I say I was not fooled for a moment but had guessed all from the start? Of course Barnes knew this—he gave us enough clues. But he does something here which is really illustrative: he shows us the divide between those who live their lives with keen awareness and those who don’t. And I don’t just mean the difference between Adrian and Tony, though the same is true there as well.

I am grateful to Barnes for his last three paragraphs in which he tells us Tony finally “gets it.” It almost seems sad that he feels uneasy and responsible now: “what else have I done wrong?” But there must be some satisfaction for poor old Tony in finally catching up with the central mystery of life.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 (Part 4: The Part About The Crimes)

I hardly know where to begin reviewing this massive opus. But I know I am not alone because most of the people who have read the thing just rate it with stars to indicate how well they liked it and leave it at that. I don’t even think the star rating system works well when considering this novel.

2666 might almost be thought of as fictional nonfiction in that it reads like remembered thought, something like a memoir, though it is broken into “books” and many people are central rather than a single narrator. It crosses several continents, and takes in pieces of people’s lives that we later discover intersect. Or, more precisely perhaps, their paths cross paths, like meteors leaving trace. This is ‘Life’ writ large: the work is so bulky one can barely see from one end of it to another, one loses one’s way. One makes connections but too late or too slowly sometimes and even then what does it matter? What control did we really have? Could we have made a difference, a difference to us or to everyone else? Ach!

The work is comprised of five Books which Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, tells us were meant to be published separately. Echevarría decided, however, that the parts were better off coming together because of their linked quality, which is not apparent until Book Five. Bolaño was first a poet but he thought he’d make more money in novels (publishers and writers will no doubt laugh at this, though this author was probably right in his own case) and there were many times during this opus that I thought he’d have done better to stick to poetry. I was not being facetious. He throws in the kitchen sink, gathering like a vacuum factoids and sidelines from people’s lives that don’t really seem to fit or be at all relevant.

However, in the end, if you can get to the end (and again, I am not being facetious—this takes stamina and stomach) there is something here which is difficult to articulate. It is sorrow, it is appetite, it is fullness, it is all, including the bad bits. At the end we can say we’ve seen it all, experienced it all. If you cling to life in old age or sickness with the idea that somehow tomorrow will be better, put that aside for Life is not especially kind. It has good bits but there is plenty of bad, too, and you can’t have one without the other.

Book One begins with academics following the work of an obscure German writer. They admire his style and tout it successfully enough that the man is mentioned in the same breath as The Nobel Prize. They are curious about his life and where he lives and how he writes. The second book, “The Part about Amalfitano” is about a Chilean transplant to Mexico and appears to be Bolaño’s musings about life, death, love, art, sexuality, and reality. He ranges from “this shithole has no future” to “ Poetry is the only thing that isn’t contaminated…only poetry…isn’t shit.” This section may well contain explanations to the rest of the novel—why Bolaño wrote it, how he felt when he began, and what he intended.

Book Three, The Book about Fate, is a linking book, connecting forgotten and overlooked people whose lives, like threads, nevertheless intersect and overlap others in the ball of string that is life, and move us unfathomably in a direction that appears to be no direction at all. We, each of us, could write a section like this about our lives when we stepped off into the unknowingness of the wider world and played an infinitesimal part in events that occur in the future without our knowledge or consent. This book links directly to Book Four, though we don’t understand the link until Book Five.

Book Four, The Part about the Crimes, is one of the most horrific litanies of rape, murder and torture that I have ever heard, for I listened on audio and the narrator’s deadpan voice did not inflect no matter the nature of the material he recited. A spate (how trivial a word to describe a tidal wave of such proportions) of murders of women was taking place across a section of Mexico. By the end I had concluded that one man couldn’t possibly have done this if he worked full-time at killing, so it was a crime that spawned crime, and crime done with similar hatred and method. I looked in the paper copy of the book to see if the deaths were listed, like they sounded on audio (1,2,3…). But no, Bolaño writes in paragraphs: one’s eyes skim the size and shape of the words on the page and the horror is not revealed until it is spoken or read aloud in an endless, truly agonizing Reading of the Names.

In Book Five, we learn of one killer at least. And we see that elusive author from Book One, Archimboldi, again. It finishes with Bolaño writing to his publishers, friends and readers” “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you goodbye.” Bolaño died a matter of months after he finished the book. One senses he knew what he was leaving behind, both in terms of life and in terms of legacy. It is a very difficult work, and one doesn’t need it to live. One cannot help but be awed, though, by the workings of one man’s mind, and enriched by his big, binocular vision of this world and its inhabitants.

The Farrar, Strauss & Giroux hardcover edition has a few really nice touches, besides being beautifully printed. The endpapers have black and white etchings of sea flora, possibly from Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region. The cover copy has a single sentence of introduction quoted here in full:
Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment, a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman--these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared."
And a single sentence review from a NY Review of Books critic in the place where the author photo usually is: "An often shockingly raunchy and violent tour de force (though the phrase seems hardly adequate to describe the novel's narrative velocity, polyphonic range, inventiveness, and bravery) based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, in the Sonora Desert of Mexico." This is not praise, but has the exhaustive bluntness of belief. The literary world will be divided between those who read and those who did not read this book. This book was recommended to me by Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, from an interview he gave to Jill Owens of Powell's on his book tour.
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Crashed by Tim Hallinan

Crashed (Junior Bender, #1)
”For most people who write thrillers and mysteries, creating crooks is more than half the fun. They’re intrinsically interesting because they’ve rejected the standard set of values and, since we all need values of some kind, they’ve invented their own. It was probably just a matter of time before I came up with a series that’s essentially all crooks.”—Tim Hallinan

Tim Hallinan wrote the above in the “Author’s Note” to the first book in his new series featuring Junior Bender, "Burglar to the Stars," in Los Angeles. For those readers unfamiliar with Hallinan’s work, he has written a series set in Thailand featuring Poke Rafferty, a travel writer with a heart of gold and karma to burn. Rafferty makes a lot of sense (and friends) defending the underdog in unequal transactions and seems to grasp the essentially welcoming Thai society is not as morally deficient as it is painted by some critics, but has a strong sense of values that are easily transgressed by unwitting or unthinking Westerners.

In the Junior Bender series Hallinan turns his eagle eye on Los Angeles for a change. The reader can tell he is having a blast with the range of folks and the shifting sense of morality he encountered there. Hallinan still has a strong instinct for protecting the underdog: witness his lack of judgment about the drug addiction of his latest fictional charge, a young female actress on a downward spiral snookered into making a porn film. These are verboten subjects in Western educated circles but Hallinan doesn’t let it faze him. He has the “come to me with your handicaps” generosity of the Dalai or the Pope. And if those two men of god will fix your afterlife, Hallinan, and his henchman Junior Bender, will fix the here-and-now.

The pace in this novel is fast—the whole thing takes place in a couple of sleepless days (the reader may experience this also)-- and the subject matter is edgy. California is once again on the leading edge in reformulating “moral man.” But everybody is a crook of some sort, as Hallinan said in the opening quote to this review, so one has to roll with the attitude and take the material for the laughs. Moral insights are there, however, as they always are with Hallinan’s books, which makes it thought-provoking and good discussion material. How far would we be willing to go, given the same constraints or circumstances?

Check out the genesis of this series on Tim Hallinan’s website. Hallinan is a man who doesn’t let a little negativity let him down. When his long-time publisher didn’t want an L.A. series, Hallinan self-published until Soho Crime picked him up. Now he has sold the film rights and the audio rights. But he’s got it going on now: visit this review by blogger and former Valley girl Nancy O.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories
”…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

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