In the mid-1990s, writer Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. Just seven months into his tour, he experienced what the Corps...
“God Lives in
St. Petersburg and
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by Tom Bissell
Pantheon, 212 pp., $20
In the mid-1990s, writer Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. Just seven months into his tour, he experienced what the Corps describes as “an early termination of service.” In Bissell’s words, “I lost my mind.”
A few years passed, and he remained haunted by this former Soviet republic. Located in the heart of Central Asia, north of Afghanistan and south of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is home to the Aral Sea — one of the world’s biggest ecological disasters — and has enjoyed the distinction of being pillaged by despots from Genghis Khan to Stalin. Bissell returned to explore the region and to write the acclaimed “Chasing the Sea,” a very personal chronicle of his journey.
Bissell’s fictional counterpart to “Sea” is “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” about Americans abroad in this part of the world. It is a small, elegant collection of short stories that serves as a promising harbinger of a new kind of post-9/11 literature.
Bissell’s characters are in some sense tourists, temporary visitors who wouldn’t be in the region if they didn’t know they could leave. There is a professor studying the ravaged Aral Sea, a war correspondent living out of a suitcase, a hopeless missionary grappling unsuccessfully with his own desire. A desperate Uzbeki official describes Americans as “a people who’ve let their souls grow fat.”
In “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” a Manhattan trust-fund baby and his wife, frequent travelers to obscure locations, are shaken to the core by their hiking adventure in Kazakhstan. Douglas and Jayne trudge across the dangerous, rocky landscape, puppyishly in tow to their menacing guide Viktor. A yawning chasm opens between them after an encounter with a group of young Kazakhs. (“Nowhere” distinctly recalls Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and Bissell acknowledges that in his post-script.)
Douglas, who can’t seem to do anything right, pointlessly quotes Robert Frost to his increasingly estranged wife: “Love and forgetting might have carried them / A little further up the mountainside.” To no avail: both are in short supply in this ruined landscape.
The best of the stories is also the most recent. “Death Defier” is about an unlikely war correspondent. Donk is unmoored by his father’s death: He leaves his Wisconsin newspaper job for a career as a freelance combat photographer, faxing visa requests to a string of different countries until he finally gets a response. “If Tajikistan’s embassy wondered why the Waukesha Freeman felt it needed a photographer in Dushanbe, it did not share that curiosity with Donk.”
He winds up in Afghanistan, where everything possible goes horribly wrong.
At its best, Bissell’s writing has an almost surreal clarity. Viktor, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, recalls the donkeys in Kandahar — “how they sit down during shelling, then rise and walk away when shelling stop.”
The older of the stories don’t feel quite as crisp and assured as the most recent — a good sign for what is yet to come from this extremely talented writer. Nonetheless, “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” sometimes bitterly funny and sometimes devastating, is a piercing portrait of the kind of place where you could easily lose your mind.