Oddly, I read the entire collection save for the final story on the plane, and when I picked it up at home last week and read the final story it was like I was reading an entirely different book. That story, "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," is a strange, journalistic tale of an eleven-fingered Pianist playing in pre-WWI Vienna and is easily my favorite story of the collection. It accomplishes one of my favorite tricks of good fiction: I was convinced it was a true story, going so far as to turn to the Internet just to verify it was apocryphal. It's a very good story, exactly the kind of thing you'd hate to teach because its big pleasure is in its telling and not its showing. I'm not sure if there is a single moment you could even call a 'scene' in the entire story, but it's so much better for it.
The prose here is accomplished but straightforward, written mostly in mid-length sentences full of meaning-heavy similes and thoughtful reflection. Fountain does it so well that it would be juvenile to say these are the type of stories that M.F.A. programs typically produce and then want to publish in their literary journals, but during the lesser stories I had a hard time thinking anything differently. What saves them is their engagement with the world--mostly South America and Haiti--because though we've read stories like these, we haven't read these stories.
As the title somewhat inadvertently suggests, most here are 'encounter' stories of an American meets the 3rd world variety. Despite some misgivings, I actually liked the non-encounter story--"Bouki and Cocaine"-- the best of the Latin America stories. The others seemed to expect shock when we learn of the hypocrisy of revolution or awe at the strangeness of a foreign culture, and maybe I'm too cynical or Fountain is too polite but I felt I understood what the stories were trying to tell me long before they finished telling me. It's not the sort of thing I would usually let bother me except that I felt these were very moral stories. Fountain obviously cares deeply for the places he's been and it's that wide, generous view of the world that separates the book from so many others.
Still, I couldn't help but feel like every time a story was about to do something really interesting--a woman's soldier husband returns from Haiti practicing Voodoo!--Fountain pulls back--she does nothing about it and learns a lesson about marriage. Only "Fingers" truly punches. The rest are like handshakes from someone whose name you are trying to remember. It usually ends up okay.