by Tom Bissell
This collection of stories was an enjoyable read, mostly because the territory was familiar to me from my own experience—the Central Asian former Soviet republics. The culture feels right, the hardness of the people, the ruggedness of the landscape, the food and the booze, the men and women who would do anything to get out, or at least make life softer through as much cash as possible. And I give Bissell a lot of credit for setting his fiction in Central Asia, a territory that is unfamiliar in contemporary fiction.
But beyond that, aspects of these stories troubled me. The long opening story, "Death Defier," is a moving account of a journalist and a photographer in Afghanistan after the Americans have occupied the country. They're in for a harsh time, which is the plot of the story, and they run up against arrogant warlords and soldiers. But the story is overwritten, cramming metaphor after metaphor into every paragraph. This is just a snippet from the first page:
"Sand as soft and pale as flour poured into the partially opened windows. The shattered but still intact windshield sagged like netting. After a moment Dong touched his forehead, his eyebrow bristles as tender as split stitches."
I'm not saying the prose needs to be zen-like and metaphorless, but three metaphors in a row is a bit much.
The second story, "Aral," is about three American scientists who visit the Aral Sea on a United Nations project. Again, the plot of this story is engaging, and Bissell knows what he's talking about, but I was troubled by (and probably alone in this) the fact that this was a group of Americans, and that, in fact, throughout the book we have Russians and Central Asians, of course, and one Brit (the photographer from "Death Defier,") but everyone else is American. That doesn't match my experience, where a foreigner was more likely to be European than to be American. In particularl, working on a UN project, it would be unusual, I think, for all to be Americans (often on World Bank projects I am the ONLY American), and odd that their first thought in a time of need would be to contact the American embassy, when there was probably a fully-equipped UN office, with doctors and nurses and all the help they could need. So "Aral" didn't quite work for me.
I liked "Expensive Trips to Nowhere," and felt that I knew those people and their doomed marriage. But when, in the third paragraph, they "continue on," I lost more faith in the author or his editor. As my favorite guide (Garner's Modern American Usage) says, this is a "minor but bothersome prolixity." It's surprising to see it in work of this caliber. [Cliff, are you through nit-picking yet?]
"The Ambassador's Son," was a fun read, with a strong character portrait of Alec, the slimy son of the title, in a story that is plot-heavy and violent. What I liked about was Bissell's willingness to make the narrator a scumbag--a guy the reader is going to really dislike. Very risky, but for me it worked. The title story, "God Lives in St. Petersburg," for me, is the reason to read the book. Here is a narrator, Timothy, who is conflicted and torn in so many different directions that, even though the reader knows that he's making bad choices we can't help but relate.
Bissell, who was briefly a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan, gets favorable treatement from Peace Corps Writers in this interview and in this review of God Lives in St. Petersburg. (Thanks, Kat!)