Tom Bissell seems to have struck the perfect balance between success and literary indie cred. He’s written a serious book — last year’s “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia,” about a trip to Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea — and a not-so-serious book called “Speak, Commentary,” a collection of fake DVD commentaries. He also contributes to Harper’s and McSweeney’s offshoot The Believer. Testimonials to Bissell’s talent from the likes of Dave Eggers pepper the young author’s book jackets.
Bissell’s most recent work, the short story collection “God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories,” backs up all the buzz. Following Americans in various parts of the Third World — photojournalists floundering through Afghanistan, couples searching for something they couldn’t find on their Central Asian safari — the work articulates the feelings of bewilderment, loneliness and fear that’s unique to westerners far from home because of work or other circumstances.
The collection opens with its longest work, one that is also the most foreign to American readers. In “Death Defier,” Donk works as a photographer in the recent conflict in Afghanistan. Marooned in the middle of a war-torn nowhere with Graves, a malarial British journalist and his driver, Donk seeks treatment for Graves’s illness and a way to get back to civilization. He avoids harm during dangerous assignments, using his lens as a buffer between himself and the tragedy of others.
“Expensive Trips Nowhere” and “Aral” show how Americans deal with peril abroad and how Westerners are perceived by Central Asians. Douglas and Jayne, the couple in “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” find themselves hiking across a rocky steppe in Kazakhstan, where an ambush by a pack of bandits causes Douglas to panic and show his inherent cowardice. In “Aral,” the polluted, shrinking Aral Sea brings a trio of U.N.-sponsored scientists to the region, but the locals (and the KGB) separate biologist Amanda from her fellow Americans, using her to make the pointed statement that Western influence won’t save the Aral Sea or the Kazakh and Uzbeki people there.
Bissell’s prose relies on his obsessive, omniscient style; he presents scenes, characters and events in a familiar tone, but paints them with sharp details. Surface impressions, inner thoughts and past and future states are incorporated into his descriptions, creating the impression that what you’re reading is part documentary, part deep emotional analysis. While his tight yet rich descriptions and turn-on-a-dime transitions usually bring the reader through each story smoothly, his phrases can sometimes bog themselves down with overthought preciousness.
Besides fantastic storytelling and highly tactile imagery, Bissell incorporates the worldview of the tired American traveler into his work: In “Death Defier,” Donk thinks, “There really were … two kinds of people in the world: Chaos People and Order People … The Japanese were Order People and knew it. Americans and English were Chaos People who thought they were Order People. The French were the worst thing to be: Order People who thought they were Chaos People. But Afghans, like Africans and Russians and the Irish, were Chaos People who knew they were Chaos People, and while this lent them a lot of charm, it made their countries go berserk, insane.” It’s this idea — the notion that nationalities are so easily classifiable — that perhaps leads characters like Amanda, Douglas and the title story’s Timothy into dubious or dangerous situations while abroad. Then again, these Americans’ high conceptions of their roles in Central Asia dissolves with such a speed that Donk just might be right.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars