Strangers Adrift In a Strange Land

When one thinks of short stories about Americans adrift in a foreign land, expatriate authors like Ernest Hemmingway and Paul Bowles come to mind.

With “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” author Tom Bissell, who also spoke with The Crimson, seems 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 American soldiers.

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 surprisingly moving.

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 jcoggins@fas.harvard.edu.

God Lives in St. Petersburg
By Tom Bissell
Vintage
Out Now