Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
I loved this book. My first reaction was total agreement with the author’s political sentiments. Most the stories take place in third world countries and focus on the displaced, the second class citizens, the poor and floundering who come out on top morally while the main character differs from his fellows in the first world by “getting it”. At first I wondered whether my sympathy for Fountain’s ideas overshadowed the literary quality of the stories, but when I looked a little more closely at the writing I was sure it had not. Fountain is simply a great storyteller. Within a paragraph or two every story hooks the reader into a compelling plot and eases her into a moral dilemma with frightening and uncomfortable dimensions. A PhD researcher goes to Columbia to study rare birds and is sure he’s the last person to be kidnapped by the rebels because he has nothing they want. Of course he is kidnapped but the story takes odd and morally significant turns when he finds the rebel captain intellectually and morally compatible and when rescue comes, it’s the result of such bizarre and amoral maneuvering on the part of fellow Americans that he actually begs to be allowed to stay. An aid worker in Haiti is persuaded to risk his job and his life by agreeing to smuggle Haitian art to Miami where he’ll meet an international dealer and bring back the money to a band of Haitians determined to make a start at improving conditions in that seemingly hopeless country. The director of an NGO who’s managed to put one-armed women to work sewing (one runs the machine while the other guides the cloth), faced with running out of funds and having to close her shop, agrees to use her usual run upcountry in Sierra Leone to bring out blood diamonds to her boyfriend/dealer. An aging golf pro with a mediocre record, needing college money for his kids, becomes a “golf ambassador” for a Myanmar resort only to discover not only how the rich prosper in third world counties but how foreigners like himself are eased into lucrative but corrupt situations. An elderly Haitian fisherman who finds a cocaine drop and turns the stash into authorities who then appropriate it for personal use, decides to try it himself—for the benefit of the people.
In the title story, a young boy is fascinated by a beautiful and sexy faculty wife (at the college where his father is president) who’s rumored to have stayed on in Cuba when her husband returned with other Americans after the Revolution. College legend had it that she was the mistress of Che Guevara. Other “encounters” with the Che legend occur in his life, including a meeting with the man who claims to have shot him and then, on orders from his superiors, cleaned him up for a picture to prove he was dead (see photo above) a picture that made him look, frankly, illuminated. When Che is dug up and returned to Cuba (not any of the other countries vying for his remains), the young man, now grown, muses—in what could easily to be the thesis of this book: “Poverty, injustice, oppression, suffering, those remain the basic conditions of most of the planet—whatever else has changed since his death, this hasn’t, but as life becomes more pleasurable and affluent for the rest of us, the poor seem more remote than ever, their appeal to our humanity even fainter.”