Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Harper-Collins, 2000) by Ben Fountain
The Cat's Table (Knopf Doubleday, 2011) by Michael Ondaatje
Having come across positive references to writers Ben Fountain and Michael Ondaatje in the New York Times Book Review recently, I was eager to see if I could find them on the Digital Downloads section of the Greene County Public Library website. Et Voila! In the case of Fountain, I downloaded his collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara and reserved a copy of a novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. In the case of Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, it was exactly the title for which I was looking. This is a novel John Irving says he has reread in order to examine its structure. And I can see why one might be tempted to do that.
Ondaatje is probably best known for his novel, The English Patient, which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie. The Cat's Table is the examination of a man's life and relationships told through the use of flash-forward from the point of view of an 11-year-old Sri Lankan boy who is on a three-week long one-way trip by ship from his homeland to live with his mother in England. Early in the voyage, the boy meets up with two other boys of his age and similar circumstances. In the dining room, along with an assortment of interesting, but mostly down-on-their-luck adults, they have been assigned to "the cat's table," the least desirable and farthest from the Captain's table. For 21 days, without the benefit of adult supervision, the three run wild throughout the ship and find themselves involved in several fantastic adventures, including a murder. Along the way, including a passage through the Suez Canal, the ship makes stops at several exotic ports-of-call. While having the feel of a memoir, the author assures us at the end of the story that this is a complete work of fiction.
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a collection of stories that take place in the Haiti, and Latin America. While Fountain's hapless protagonists are older than the 11-year-olds of The Cat's Table, their positions are no less precarious. Among them are a bird watcher who is taken captive by rebels in the Colombian jungle and a golf pro who is used as a front for land-grabbers. They often find themselves pursuing lives through political chaos around them, about which they can do nothing. As with the boys on the ship, they are drifting through life, looking up from the bottom; they are seated at the cat's table. As with Ondaatje, I was bowled over by Fountain's writing.
Ondaatje and Fountain are both writers with whom I have not previously been familiar. Fortunately, each of them has amassed a body of work, much of it available at the Greene County Library, that will keep me busy for some time to come.
Reader reviews of materials available at or through the Yellow Springs Library are encouraged and appreciated.