When one thinks of short stories about Americans adrift in a foreign
land, expatriate authors like Ernest Hemmingway and Paul Bowles come to
With “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” author Tom Bissell, who also spoke with The Crimson
like a contemporary counterpart to this esteemed company, with his
creation of a confection of intricately poignant stories about
Americans drifting lost in Central Asia.
This latest work from Bissell is a stirring and moving work
that is meticulously fetching. He abstains from the cliché in his
expressive writing, which is often side-splittingly funny.
Populating this work of six short stories is a quirky
collection of characters that are memorable and touching. He eschews
the “dumb American” stereotype in favor of complex lost souls threaded
together by their ties to Central Asia.
Bissell has also developed an image of a diverse international landscape that is exquisitely entertaining and engaging.
In “Death Defier” we meet Donk, an overweight war photographer,
amidst combat in Afghanistan. When his travel companion takes ill, Donk
is forced to chase down a cure in the scorching valleys of humvees and
We understand how “Afghanistan had mailed into Donk’s brain a
series of crushingly similar mental postcards: men, men, desert, men,
men, men, guns, men, guns, guns, desert, guns, men.”
Situated in the chaos and confusion of Kunduz, the reader
becomes captivated by Donk’s bizarre desire to be surrounded by these
scenes of death. His tale is a haunting and intricate study of a
human’s fear and fascination with death.
“He believed in photography, which he loved, and death, which
he hated. He thought about how he had been using one to deny the
other,” Bissell writes.
“The Ambassador’s Son” is a first-person narrative about a
bratty Russian ambassador’s son, whose penchant for booze and broads is
When his mother discovers him in a compromising position with
two comely girls, Svetlana and Olga, the son’s only explanation is “two
chicks at once, Ma.” Despite the son’s later admission that “every
beautiful girl in the Capital was either for sale or willing to
negotiate,” he is a strangely compelling character.
Light-hearted, but ultimately emotional, “The Ambassador’s Son” is the funniest story within the collection.
The namesake story “God Lives in St. Petersburg”—about a
married Christian missionary questioning his sexuality in the Russian
city—is a quiet, almost methodical piece. The protagonist, Timothy
Silverstone, is likely the most “lost” of all of Bissell’s characters.
Wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, which Bissell
describes with luscious detail, Timothy is a spiritually fragmented
man. Despite the companionship of his gay lover Sasha, Timothy is stuck
in the aimless pursuit of curing his loneliness, and Bissell paints a
movingly somber portrait that is never gloomy or drab. He wonderfully
combines his bitingly sardonic (sometimes ironic) sense of humor with
profound depictions of loneliness and emptiness.
Modifying his tone from each story to the next, Bissell
captures both the abstractness of human emptiness and the realities of
Central Asia. The places in which these Americans find themselves
immersed are integral to, and often symbolic of, their plight. From the
desolate terrain of Afghanistan to the red-light districts of Russia,
Bissell nails the intricacy, even complication, of Central Asia,
hitherto mostly ignored by the world of literature.
With “God Lives in St. Petersburg” added to his previous
works—most notably “Chasing the Sea,” which centered around the
Aral—Bissell is proving to be the premier contemporary author of
Americans adrift around the world. —Staff writer Jessica C. Coggins can be reached at email@example.com.
God Lives in St. Petersburg
By Tom Bissell