Ben Fountain, the fiction editor of Southwest Review, has produced a debut story collection that should give lit-rag hopefuls pause. With pieces about places like Haiti, Colombia, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara is a wicked example of how to do the short form right. Fountain's prose seems effortless, a mix of sincere, literary passages and sparkling reportage, peppered with drop-dead lines about the human condition. The tales revolve around the iconic figure of the well-meaning American abroad, confounding the locals, attempting to save the world and/or himself. In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," an ornithologist from Duke University who thinks himself too poor to kidnap ("I owe $20,000 in student loans," he informs curious rebels) gets abducted. After the horror subsides, he first admires his captors for their dedication to the cause, then understands that the revolution has become a business unto itself. He turns his attention and ultimately offers his life to the birds, a batch of critically endangered Purpureicephalus feltisi (crimson-capped parrots). In "Asian Tiger," an American golf pro, dropped into a Myanmar war zone to design a course (the generals love golf), turns a longing but resigned eye to the life of the local monks. Filled with smuggling, kidnappings, and crooked politics, Brief Encounters brings both a clear eye and a sense of the absurd to deal-making in the Third World.
Wed., Sept. 13, 7 p.m.