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Review of RPCV Thomas Bissell's Chasing the Sea
Review of RPCV Thomas Bissell's Chasing the Sea
Ancient cities, despots, and a ravaged sea
By Bill Beuttler, 1/25/2004
Chasing the Sea
By Tom Bissell
Pantheon, 388 pp., $24.95
Tom Bissell came to my attention three years ago via a fine piece of personal journalism in Harper's magazine about his hometown, Escanaba, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The actor and first-time director Jeff Daniels had brought a crew to town to shoot "Escanaba in da Moonlight," and Bissell -- whose day job at the time was editing books -- used the occasion to return home and ponder the place that shaped him. The resulting essay, which was sharp, wistful, and wise, made it clear that this was a young writer to watch.
Bissell has gone on to produce more good magazine journalism since then, and now, at age 29, he has published a mostly excellent first book, with a story collection ("Death Defier and Other Stories From Central Asia") set to follow this year.
His debut, "Chasing the Sea," is part history-laden travel narrative, part environmental and political jeremiad. In the spring of 2001, Bissell spent six weeks traveling in Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic where five years earlier, suffering from home- and lovesickness (and having lost 50 pounds to chronic diarrhea), he'd aborted his two-year-plus commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer after just seven months. Bissell's return trip to Uzbekistan was on assignment for Harper's, to report on "one of the largest ecological disasters in the world," the shrinking of the Aral Sea from the equivalent of Lake Michigan in 1960 to less than one-third that size today. But he went there also to redeem his Peace Corps failure.
There is a great deal to like about this book. Bissell doesn't reach the Aral Sea until his final chapter, but he makes vivid the full extent of this underreported disaster and the Soviet obsession with cotton growing that caused it. He gives us just enough history on the despots who have brutalized the region over the ages and of the political tensions that the collapse of the Soviet Union has unleashed in Central Asia today. Bissell's translator, a slang-happy 24-year-old he calls Rustam, is a funny and worthy sidekick. The narrative is propelled by a strong literary sensibility and Bissell's droll, self-deprecating humor.
All this good stuff makes Bissell's infrequent lapses irritating by contrast. For instance, there's his sudden five-page diatribe against the author Robert D. Kaplan for his take on Uzbekistan in "The Ends of the Earth," an abrupt change of tone and focus that Bissell does next to nothing to prepare the reader for. He is especially scornful of Kaplan for "his willingness to pardon the dictatorship of Islam Karimov because he keeps Uzbekistan's 'simmering hatreds' under control." It takes brassiness for a young guy who describes himself showing up to interview a World Bank official in "a PROPERTY OF MICHIGAN STATE T-shirt," wimps out of the Peace Corps, and lavishes the attention he does on his own bowel habits to take on a veteran war correspondent this way. He could even, conceivably, be right about his criticisms. But his arguments here are more impassioned than persuasive.
Bissell also gets carried away with metaphors from time to time. And sometimes his metaphors flat out don't work -- they're there more to show off than to clarify Bissell's point, and they don't hold up to scrutiny.
"Like medicine or pornography," we're told on Page 9, "Uzbekistan is a subject in which a person is either deeply versed or utterly ignorant."
That's clever and funny at first glance, sure, but a moment's reflection reveals it to be utter nonsense. Neither medicine nor pornography really breaks down to an either-or split between expertise and total ignorance.
Then there's this on Page 343: "Constructed by the Uzbek government in 1998 for the explicit purpose of containing the ballooning number of Muslims convicted of illegal religious activity, the Jaslyk prison camp was widely viewed as one of the most spectacular neoplasms upon an already tumor-ridden body politic."
"Widely viewed" as such? Who besides a certain metaphor-obsessed author would think to employ overwrought medical terminology like "neoplasm" and "tumor-ridden body politic" in describing a prison? Wasn't it Bissell himself who posited the theory that all who aren't experts in medicine are utterly ignorant of the subject? And how many people outside Uzbekistan have ever heard of the Jaslyk prison camp?
There's a notion afloat in publishing today that magazines are more closely edited than books, both for space reasons and because book editors are more interested in marketing books than in editing them. This prison-as-neoplasm stuff is a good case in point. When Harper's ran its version of Chapter 7 of "Chasing the Sea" in its April 2002 issue, the passage had been edited out.
But this is quibbling. Despite a few minor slip-ups, "Chasing the Sea" is a splendid debut that fulfills the promise of Bissell's Escanaba piece. His story collection is worth looking forward to.
Bill Beuttler is a former senior editor of Men's Journal and Boston magazine.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.