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Stories look at seeking justice

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"BRIEF ENCOUNTERS WITH CHE GUEVARA," by Ben Fountain, HarperCollins, 229 pages, $24.95

Ben Fountain's new short-story collection is grand. The title, "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara," foreshadows Fountain's central theme about seeking justice in a crazy world.

Each of Fountain's eight stories takes the reader into a foreign land. Each has to do with a war of some sort. Each story is dark —but never any darker than the historical truth. And most are darkly funny.

The first story, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," is set in Colombia and begins like this: " '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 Geografica in Bogata, 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."

Of course, Blair gets kidnapped by the rebels. And guess how much good his letters do? And guess how hard Blair's country works to gain the release of this innocent young ornithologist?

Unlike Blair, the main character in "The Good Ones Are Already Taken" has no illusions about being able to control her destiny. Her husband was angry and difficult before he joined the Green Berets and went to Haiti for 10 months of Operation Uphold Democracy. When he comes home, he's as good-looking as ever, and also much kinder. He is also a convert to voodooism.

When her husband is in Haiti and she moves into a single-wide down a dirt road in the sweet-gum forests, people wonder why she wants to live so far from Fayetteville. "Aren't you scared out there all by yourself?" they ask.

She answers, "'Plenty of worse things to be scared of,' leaving unsaid her sense of marriage as a nearer threat than any snakes or feral dogs the woods might throw out."

The dust jacket shows birds, prettily painted in the Audubon style. The dust jacket is dotted with small holes, allowing the red of the book's cover to show through from underneath. When you first pick up the book it seems these holes are mere decorations. By the end, they seem like bullet holes.

These stories feature people who are too brave for their own good. Fountain's subject matter is as important as anything you will see on the nightly news. He understands the political situation in a number of countries — including this one.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com