Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories

by Ben Fountain

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The well-intentioned protagonists of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara are caught -- to both disastrous and hilarious effect -- in the maelstrom of political and social upheaval surrounding them. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an ornithologist being held hostage in the Colombian rain forest finds that he respects his captors for their commitment to a cause, until he realizes that the Revolution looks a lot like big business. In "The Good Ones Are Already Taken," the wife of a Special Forces officer battles a Haitian voodoo goddess with whom her husband is carrying on a not-entirely-spiritual relationship. And in "The Lion's Mouth," a disillusioned aid worker makes a Faustian bargain to become a diamond smuggler for the greater good. With masterful pacing and a robust sense of the absurd, each story in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a self-contained adventure, steeped in the heady mix of tragedy and danger, excitement and hope, that characterizes countries in transition.

Through Fountain's rounded and novelistic prose, these intelligent and keenly observed stories are painted in provocative and vibrant detail across a global canvas. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara marks the arrival of a striking and resonant new voice that speaks adeptly to the intimate connection between the foreign, the familiar, and the inescapably human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061847622
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 672,185
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Ben Fountain was born in Chapel Hill and grew up in the tobacco country of eastern North Carolina. A former practicing attorney, he is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and the novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. Billy Lynn was adapted into a feature film directed by three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, and his work has been translated into over twenty languages. His series of essays published in The Guardian on the 2016 U.S. presidential election was subsequently nominated by the editors of The Guardian for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife of 32 years, Sharon Fountain.


Dallas, Texas

Place of Birth:

Chapel Hill, North Carolina


B.A. in English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1980; J.D., Duke University School of Law, 1983

Read an Excerpt

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

By Ben Fountain

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ben Fountain
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060885580

Chapter One

Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera

I extended to the comandante the opportunity to walk the floor of the exchange with me, and he seemed reasonably intrigued.

--Richard Grasso, Chairman
New York Stock Exchange
Bogotá, Colombia, June 26, 1999

No way Blair insisted to anyone who asked, no self-respecting bunch of extortionist rebels would ever want to kidnap him. He was the poorest of the poor, poorer even than the hardscrabble campesinos pounding the mountains into dead slag heaps--John Blair, graduate assistant slave and aspiring Ph.D., whose idea of big money was a twenty-dollar bill. In case of trouble he had letters of introduction from Duke University, the von Humboldt Institute, and the Instituto Geográfica in Bogotá, whose director was known to have contacts in the Movimiento Unido de Revolucionarios de Colombia, the MURC, which controlled unconscionable swaths of the southwest cordilleras. For three weeks Blair would hike through the remnant cloud forest, then go back to Duke and scratch together enough grants to spend the following year in the Huila district, where he would study the effects of habitat fragmentation on rarelocal species of parrotlets.

It could be done; it would be done; it had to be done. Even before he'd first published in a peer-reviewed journal--at age seventeen, in Auk, "Field Notes on the Breeding and Diet of the Tovi Parakeet"--Blair had known his was likely the last generation that would witness scores of these species in the wild, which fueled a core urgency in his boyhood passion--obsession, his bewildered parents would have said--for anything avian. Full speed ahead, and damn the politics; as it happened they grabbed him near Popayán, a brutally efficient bunch in jungle fatigues who rousted all the livestock and people off the bus. Blair hunched over, trying to blend in with the compact Indians, but a tall skinny gringo with a big backpack might as well have had a turban on his head.

"You," said the comandante in a cool voice, "you're coming with us."

Blair started to explain that he was a scholar, thus worthless in any monetary sense--he'd been counting on his formidable language skills to walk him through this very sort of situation--but one of the rebels was into his backpack now, spilling the notebooks and Zeiss-Jena binoculars into the road, then the Leica with the cannon-barrel 200x zoom. Blair's most valuable possessions, worth more than his car.

"He's a spy," announced the rebel.

"No, no," Blair politely corrected. "Soy ornitólogo. Estudiante."

"You're a spy," declared the comandante, poking Blair's notebooks with the tip of his gun. "In the name of the Secretariat I'm arresting you."

When Blair protested they hit him fairly hard in the stomach, and that was the moment he knew that his life had changed. They called him la merca, the merchandise, and for the next four days he slogged through the mountains eating cold arepas and sardines and taking endless taunts about firing squads, although he did, thanks to an eighty-mile-a-week running habit, hold up better than the oil executives and mining engineers the rebels were used to bringing in. The first day he simply put down his head and marched, enduring the hardship only because he had to, but as the column moved deeper into the mountains a sense of possibility began to assert itself, a signal too faint to call an idea. To the east the cordillera was scorched and spent, rubbled by decades of desperate agriculture. The few mingy scraps of surviving forest were eerily silent, but once they crossed the borders of the MURC-controlled zone the vegetation closed around them with the density of a cave. At night Blair registered a deep suck and gurgle, the engine of the forest's vast plumbing system; mornings they woke to the screams of piha birds, then the mixed-species flocks started in with their contrapuntal yammerings and groks and crees that made the forest sound like a construction site. In three days on the trail Blair reliably saw fourteen species on the CITES endangered list, as well as an exceedingly rare Hapalopsittaca perched in a fern the size of a minivan. He was amazed, and said as much to the young comandante, who eyed him for a moment in a thoughtful way.

"Yes," the rebel answered, "ecology is important to the Revolution. As a scholar"--he gave a faint, possibly ironic smile--"you can appreciate this," and he made a little speech about the environment, how the firmeza revolucionario had banned the multinational logging and mining "mafias" from all liberated zones.

The column reached base camp on the fourth day, trudging into the fortified MURC compound through a soiling rain. They hauled Blair straight to the Office of Complaints and Claims, where he sat for two hours in a damp hallway staring at posters of Lenin and Che, wondering if the rebels planned to shoot him today. When at last they led him into the main office, Comandante Alberto's first words were:

"You don't look like a spy."

A number of Blair's possessions lay on the desk: binoculars, camera, maps and compass, the notebooks with their microscopic Blairian scribble. Seven or eight subcomandantes were seated along the wall, while Alberto, the comandante máximo, studied Blair with the calm of someone blowing smoke rings. He resembled a late-period Jerry Garcia in fatigues, a heavy man with steel-rim glasses, double bags under his eyes, and a dense brillo bush of graying hair.

"I'm not a spy," Blair answered in his wired, earnest way. "I'm an ornithologist. I study birds."

"However," Alberto continued, "if they wanted to send a spy, they wouldn't send somebody who looked like a spy. So the fact that you don't look like a spy makes me think you're a spy."

Blair considered. "And what if I did look like a spy?"

"Then I'd think you were a spy."

The subcomandantes hawed like drunks rolling around in the mud. So was it all a big joke, Blair wanted . . .


Excerpted from Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain Copyright © 2006 by Ben Fountain. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Fountain's prose is original and crystal-clear, with beautiful phrasings that contribute greatly to the impact of the writing. The first story in the collection--'Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera'--was my favorite, and one of the two or three best short stories I've ever read. The fact that the ending, which should have been a joyous outcome for the protagonist, was instead a source of infinite despair, not only for the character but for all of mankind, was a big part of the genius of the story. 'The Good Ones Are Already Taken' seemed weaker, and I thought perhaps Mr. Fountain is one of those male writers who cannot portray female characters with the same depth of character as the males, but he proved me wrong in 'The Lion's Mouth' and 'Fantasy for Eleven Fingers', which is written as a historical account and almost had me convinced that it had happened. The story that gives the collection its title also seemed weaker to me, perhaps because it lacked the moral confusion of most of the other stories, but all stories are written with an incredible adroitness, creating the 'orgasmic perfection' attributed to Tiger Woods in one of the stories.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One hint that a writer of short stories or novellas or even full novels for that matter is the sense given to the reader that all of the information is so solidly shared that the writer must be speaking from autobiographical stance. Yet all we gather from the brief jacket bit about Ben Fountain is that he has won some impressive literary awards, is editor of Southwest Review, and lives in Texas with his little family! There is nothing to suggest a world traveler who has grown into the soil of the various parts of the world he molds into his stories. We are left with the conclusion that Fountain is simply a brilliant writer - and that is even more impressive. Eight stories are served with exquisite writing technique, fastidious attention to detail, and an endless imagination for bizarre events that serve as a stage for characters at once participating in the darker elements of the world's doings while finding some sense of exotica on a planet that has heretofore seemed so blasé. He takes us to Haiti, explores cocaine trafficking there by both the innocent poor folk observers and the corrupt police force he follows a devoted ornithologist in captivity in Colombia who gains insight into Revolution he examines a strange relationship between a young lady and her older diamond hunting mate in Sierra Leone ('Being an American these days, that's sort of like being a walking joke, right?') he follows a bumbling golf pro whose sad life catches up with him in Myanmar he takes us back to the turn of the 20th century to uncover a child piano prodigy who is able to play a Fantasy for piano written by a pianist who shared her deformity of having eleven fingers he deals with a couple who must cope with the husband's 'co-marriage' to a Haitian voodoo goddess and he obsesses on tales of encounters with the ever-popular Che Guevara. With each story he transports us wholly to the place of action and the interstices of the minds of the character he paints. Though this reader has not been to Haiti, Sierra Leone or Myanmar to check the reality of Fountain's prose descriptions there, the world of music for the piano is close enough to have profound respect for his writings about piano technique and music history and Vienna. Fountain MAKES us believe his stories, tales that are more like histories than fiction, so well drawn are they. Here is a writer of inordinate gifts. We can only hope he is busy at work crafting a novel to see how well his brief stories can be transported into extended form. Ben Fountain is most assuredly an author to watch! Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain This book is eight short stories yes, but there is so much in each story that they could stand alone and maintain a reader's interest. This book is about that which changes us when it is least expected and in the most unlikely of places. Each story involves a person that had gone to another country or and is touched by some part of that foreign land and absorbs the land and people into their own being. Some unexpected skills arise to survive the situation and in other ways instincts appear on the surface to be strange and unusual but absolutely imperative to the overall survival of the situation. John Blair In Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera a PhD candidate by the name of John Blair is searching for a bird and finds him trying to manipulate a revolution. In Bouki and the Cocaine Syto Charles tries to keep his respectability and basic morale base while fighting the temptation when he finds a drug stash. Each individual story describes a place that is impoverished or torn apart by war or surviving the brutal aftermath of war. The torment of the people involved and the survival skills they had developed to remain in their home and on their property. What happens in each story is how all of this effects the person who goes to this place for their individual reason and sees the desperation and fear but also the capitalism and greed that develops among those who are the strongest in the group to survive. The stories are not easy reading and do not involve Che Guevara in actuality except for one person's overall obsession with him. The stories however are about the basic elements of human nature some which are good, some which are dark. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the full spectrum of reading with a realistic flavor to the stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written collection of short stories. Especially impressive is the author's ability to make the reader feel they are a part of the story too.
RavRita on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a contemporary book with short stories dealing with political and social issues. This guy can write. Each short story could easily turn into a page turning novel while somehow succinct and satisfying as a short story. He won a lot of awards for this book and deserved every one of them.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
First, it's not what you think. It is, however, beautifully written, smart, ironic, injured, and immediate. This is the type of book that we need to not only be reading, but teaching and aspiring to write. For students, I'd see it as the perfect contemporary pairing to texts by Hemingway or Conrad. Fountain flawlessly incorporates contemporary world affairs into stories that betray a careful understanding of the world, introducing us to characters who are believable and real just so much as they are funny and heartbreaking. The settings are both familiar and unfamiliar, but always immediate and shown with depth.This is an abstract review, but I don't want to give anything away. I do want you to pick up the book, even if this is the only short story collection you ever buy. It's worth it.
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