As I’ve noted a few times before here, I’m a great fan of Ben Fountain’s 2006 short-story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. So is Malcolm Gladwell—or, rather, he’s greatly interested in Fountain’s rise as a fiction writer, which wasn’t nearly as “overnight” as some of his press implied. In a piece in the New Yorker on the nature of genius, Gladwell describes Fountain’s long path to publication:
But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.
The hard work shows in the writing. Here’s what I wrote about the book for Kirkus Reviews:
Eight powerful stories, most of them set in the world’s grimmest corners.
Well-traveled American writers can be hard to come by these days, and fewer still would go to the places where many of Fountain’s characters languish. In “Asian Tiger,” a golf pro who blew his shot at the big time gets work the only place he can—a resort in Myanmar, where he helps toxically corrupt military leaders work on their swings while they strike deals with equally immoral foreign profiteers; in “The Lion’s Mouth,” a charity worker in Sierra Leone struggles to make her relationship with a diamond smuggler jibe with her altruistic efforts to help the women who are victimized by that very trade. It would be easy enough to turn these plots into pat lectures about the injustices of globalization in general or Ugly Americans in particular, but Fountain’s smarter than that; much like Graham Greene, he has a nuanced understanding of how these circumstances affect both native and visitor, and like Greene, he can approach this kind of material with a light touch, even humor. In the title story, the narrator learns that one of his coworkers at a moving company claims to have killed the famous Cuban revolutionary, and in “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” a special-ops soldier returns from Haiti to his wife in Fayetteville, N.C., where he tells her he’s now married to a lwa, or voodoo goddess, to whom he’ll now have to devote himself on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The closing story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” initially seems to be the outlier: It’s the story of Anna Kuhl, an Austrian Jewish piano prodigy with 11 fingers who becomes a phenomenon in the classical-music world. But the author’s main theme is alienation, and the story’s conclusion proves its effects can be as savage in a German concert hall as in the Colombian jungle.
An impeccable debut collection; if Fountain can keep it up, he’s an heir to Paul Theroux.