There’s so little in the world we can be sure of, and maybe it’s that lack, that flaw or deficiency, if you will, that drives our strongest compulsions.
—- Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
After finishing the massive collection of J. G. Ballard’s fiction, I’m cruising my Kindle, finishing off some fiction that I have started and slacked off on.
From the first time I stumbled across a description of it – I was irresistibly drawn to Ben Fountain’s collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. First, he is an author that shares a city with me. Originally, from North Carolina (I was born there – in the first of many burgs I lived in with the word “Fort” as its prefix) he has a law degree from Duke (where my son goes to school) and then moved to Dallas to practice real estate law.
He struggled for years before he finally was able to publish this book. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote about his delayed genius. Finally he is recognized as a great writer and has gained additional fame for articles published in the aftermath of the Haitian Earthquake (I know a little about Latin American Third World Earthquakes).
There are eight stories in the book:
- Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera (my favorite)
- Rêve Haitien
- The Good Ones are Already Taken
- Asian Tiger
- Bouki and the Cocaine
- The Lion’s Mouth (really excellent story of Sierra Leone and the compulsions of aid workers)
- Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
- Fantasy for Eleven Fingers (odd story… reminds me of Campion’s “The Piano” – even before the end)
I absolutely loved the first story – Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera – set in Columbia, a country Fountain has no experience with.
“It’s better to go. It would have been better if I had gone to Colombia, it would have been better if I had gone to Sierra Leone. You never know what you’re missing. You never know what you don’t know until you go. But you can’t always go. You don’t have unlimited time and unlimited money. And so you do the next best thing—you try to imagine yourself into these places. The way I did it was to read everything I could get my hands on and to talk to other people who might have information. If there were helpful movies or documentaries, I sought those out. I was just trying to soak it all up and imagine my way into it using that basic research and my own experience in similar places or similar situations.
I actually think his distance from Colombia helped the story. It’s the story of an ornithologist kidnapped by Colombian rebels. While in captivity he discovers a natural prize of infinite value – though nobody else really understands. In the end, it is he who does not understand. It is the confusion of the ornithologist when confronted with the fatal mysteries of the third world that forms the backbone of the story.
It is this discord between the first and third worlds… this frission when confronted with something that is older, more passionate, and raw than anything you have ever thought possible – and then the dawning of the realization that this jewel of wonder is wrapped in impenetrable layers of horror and death, doom and madness… and there isn’t anything you can do about it – that’s what it likes to be exposed to the third world.
Believe me, I know.
Fountain seems to feel this in his stories and skirts it without completely diving in – but he comes closer than most anything I’ve read since the simple Ray Bradbury story, The Highway.
I would love to read his work as it continues to mature… to see him dig closer to the heart of darkness. Unfortunately he seems to be seduced by politics and moving more away from what I want to read. We’ll see, I won’t give up on him. I won’t give up looking for what I want.
On the other hand, I guess if you want something done, if you want to read something different, maybe you have to do just dig in and do it yourself.
Addicted to Haiti by Ben Fountain
After the Earthquake, but Before the Flood by Ben Fountain