July 2005

Sharon Adarlo

fiction

God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories by Tom Bissell

Before becoming a McSweeney's serf, Tom Bissell was a reject, a failure, a Peace Corps flunky. Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 and came back after less than a year, hounded by his inexperience, illness, and naiveté. And yet the wide-open and haunted spaces of Uzbekistan and the rest of the Central Asian countries held him in thrall. Bissell wrote Chasing the Sea about the man-made devastation of the ever-shrinking Aral Sea and revisits that region in his new book of six stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg. Americans misbehave and make fools of themselves in Bissell’s stories as their actions are thrown in high relief to the unforgiving landscape. Bissell mines his own experiences for the book, an often moving, exhilarating, and bracing volume.

In the first story, “Death Defier,” two war journalists try to make their way from Kunduz to Mazar, Afghanistan. They are taken in by an Afghan warlord along with their fixer, Hassan, as Graves, the British print reporter, is deathly sick with malaria. The American photographer Donk is sent to a hidden valley on an ominous errand for malaria-curing grass with Hassan and two of the Afghan warlord’s toughs.

In “Aral,” an American scientist studying the Aral Sea is kidnapped by a former KGB operative and is forced to change her assumptions about the place. In “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” two married Americans come undone in a revealing moment -- the story is an updated version of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In the rest of the stories, a diplomat’s freewheeling son’s latest escapade ends in disaster, an engaged couple unravels after a long teaching job in Kyrgyzstan, and in the title story, an English teacher’s strong religious faith clashes with his equally strong homosexual desires.

Bissell is talented, that’s for sure. He’s attention to detail is tantamount and a hallmark of his style. In the beginning of “Death Defier,” accumulation of detail seems to trump character development at first, but the precise handling of words and the witty but quiet use of pop-culture jargon for description makes the stories seem immediate and fresh. “With shiatsu delicacy, Graves massaged his face with his fingertips. A bright bracelet of untanned flesh encircled his wrist. Graves’ watch, too, had been stolen.” Maybe in the wrong hands, the analogies and pop-culture descriptions would sound gangly and over-reaching, but Bissell uses this skill sparingly and for the right occasion so that words and images fit together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle.

From“Aral”: “The hotel was a middle-range affair, the lobby done up in a marblish, neo-From Russia with Love motif a clever film student might have thought touching. It was not the nicest hotel in Tashkent, nor was it the worst. The service industry here was still in its australopithecine stage…….”

Bissell's stories have a slightly jarring and clumsy habit of pulling back from the action to explain the motives of his characters. Maybe it’s because I don’t read short stories often and maybe I’m just not up to what contemporary authors are doing with short story structure, but the whole process felt forced. You see this occurring in three out of the six stories. Bissell’s explains Donk’s contradictory nature when it comes to death especially when it comes to his own father’s demise in “Death Defier.” You finally find out why Jayne and Douglas’ marriage is falling apart when Douglas acts selfishly in “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” and in “Animals in Our Lives,” the cause for the break down of an engagement is finally revealed in a flashback and pointed conversation.

The stories have this bracing, powerful, and scouring effect and yet when it comes time to read something -- anything, I would not look at the stories again save for “Death Defier.” Without giving too much away about the ending, I had to put the book away and go for a walk after I read that first story. I felt floored. Not so much by Bissell’s skills, which are abundant, but the ending was so moving, so stinging, so nihilistic and beautiful in its precise and keen language. I wasn’t sure to love it or hate it. The ending could drive a person to drink.

I read on and was confronted again and again by the pall of dread and sadness that seeped through all the stories -- horrible things keep on happening to the deserving and the undeserving; The stories seemed at their most autobiographical in the title story where the closeted English teacher fails to reconcile his warring emotions and his sense of futility at his job. A defeated air infects you after reading the book in one sitting. Bissell wrote the stories as separate entities, and maybe it is advisable that the reader should instead dip and browse from one tale to another. The stories are the mental equivalent of rocks in your pocket and throwing yourself off a bridge. Saying that does huge disservice to the power and the chilling effect of Bissell’s prose, but would you willingly want to go through it again? Now that’s a question.

God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories by Tom Bissell
Pantheon
ISBN: 0375422641
212 Pages