February 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Moscow Times: When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Uzbekistan: Special Report: Uzbekistan RPCV and Author Tom Bissell: Tom Bissell: Archived Stories: January 31, 2005: Headlines: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Boston Globe: "There's no more gifted and exciting young writer in America than Tom Bissell." : February 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Moscow Times: When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia

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When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia

When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia

When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia

Out of Control

When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's as much the person as the place in Tom Bissell's collection of stories about Americans traveling through Central Asia.

By Katherine Shonk
Published: February 4, 2005

Two young American men meet by chance in a cafe in a Central Asian capital. Alec, the exuberantly dissolute son of the local U.S. ambassador, was recently caught by his mother in flagrante delicto with two Russian girls in the embassy's basement. Ryan, a missionary in the midst of a nervous breakdown, is leaving the country the next day, having disgraced his host agency with his own indiscretions.

"In the past nine months," Ryan tells Alec a few minutes into their acquaintance, "I've repeatedly had to go to the bathroom in a hole. Horse has been a dietary staple. I've been stoned, mugged twice, and harassed by the SNB. I'd never tasted alcohol in my life before I came here, but I managed to spend an entire week drunk. I've been in three fistfights, two of them with children. I cheated on my wife twenty-seven times, nearly lost my faith in God, and in the meantime successfully managed to evangelize only ten people."

"That's not too bad," Alec responds. "Only two less than Jesus."

This passage comes early in "The Ambassador's Son," one of six short stories in Tom Bissell's debut fiction collection, "God Lives in St. Petersburg." Both Alec and Ryan appear to have hit rock bottom -- yet it turns out they have much farther to fall.

When expatriates crack up abroad, who or what is to blame? It's easy to pin an overseas crisis -- whether of faith, conscience or confidence -- on the host nation itself. Exotic locales are breeding grounds for alienation, fear and loneliness; depravity and depression often follow. But expatriates arrive with their own baggage. Reckless as gamblers, idealistic as missionaries (and often one or both by trade), they seek more fulfilling lives in places they don't know very well. No surprise that when they crash, they crash hard.

"God Lives in St. Petersburg," which, despite its title, is set primarily in post-Soviet Central Asia, is populated by expatriates crashing spectacularly. Whether saving souls in Samarkand, documenting war in Afghanistan, or pleasure-tripping in Almaty, American characters stake their claims to salvation, adventure and the spoils that wealthy visitors to poor nations expect as their due. In the process, they retrace the psychological and cultural missteps of the most deluded crusaders and colonialists.

A Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan during the mid-1990s, Bissell returned in 2001 to research the depletion of the Aral Sea. His first book, "Chasing the Sea," was an enthralling, hour-by-hour account of the trip. Bissell's writing conveys a passion for this part of the world and an intense curiosity about the motives of Central Asians and visiting Westerners alike.

The American travelers in "God Lives in St. Petersburg" are multi-faceted, which is to say they are often unlikable. Bandits, soldiers and kidnappers punish them for their carelessness and naivete, and the threat of violence is a constant. "Aral" explains how Amanda Reese, an environmental biologist visiting the Aral Sea as part of a small UN delegation, winds up the captive of a man who may or may not be a government spy. In a risky and satisfying twist, the story's focus switches from petulant Amanda and her arrogant colleagues to characters more worthy of the reader's sympathy.

"Expensive Trips Nowhere" finds New Yorkers Douglas and Jayne in the wilds of Kazakhstan, enduring another of the senseless vacations he has been springing on her since inheriting money from his parents. "Steppe makes strong what is strong ... Makes weak what is weak," cautions war veteran Viktor, their contemptuous Russian guide. Throughout the trek, Douglas, a man who once accidentally broke his wife's arm in a game of touch football, is handed new and bigger opportunities to disappoint her.

Bissell's stories are long and bursting at the seams with clever dialogue, well-sculpted settings and full characters. It is a rare pleasure to find a young writer (Bissell was born in 1974) handcrafting prose with such patient care. Constructed in the tried-and-true shape of a roller coaster, the stories chug to dramatic and emotional peaks, then plunge earthward, leaving the reader shaken and dazzled.

The centerpiece of the collection is "Death Defier," which introduces us to Donk St. Pierre, a combat photographer from Michigan who is roaming Afghanistan during the recent war. Donk has been obsessed with death since witnessing his father's final days; his therapist labels his compulsive war-hopping "chronic habitual suicide." After a car crash on the highway to Kunduz, Donk and his traveling companion, Graves, a British journalist succumbing to malaria, are stranded at a warlord's compound. ("A good warlord!" their translator assures them.) With no hope of procuring life-saving medicine for his friend, Donk reluctantly sets off for a distant valley to gather grasses prescribed by the warlord's "doctor." In an ending as sinister as that of a Flannery O'Connor story, Donk is forced to confront the specter of death without his camera's protective lens.

The title story offers the starkest condemnation of Americans trying to outrun their fears abroad. As "God Lives in St. Petersburg" opens, Timothy Silverstone, a young missionary, is losing his faith: "When he came to Central Asia, he felt peace with God as a great glowing cylinder inside of him, but the cylinder had grown dim." To his utter horror and disgust, Timothy has fallen into the daily habit of sleeping with a young man named Sasha. In the midst of his psychic break, the Russian mother of one of Timothy's students offers up her 14-year-old daughter. "She will do for you whatever you ask," the woman says, if only Timothy will take the girl to America as his wife. The ending is unflinching and beyond bleak.

"Animals in Our Lives" is the only story set in the United States, and, perhaps inevitably, it is also the tamest. Franklin has recently aborted a stint teaching English in Kyrgyzstan to try to resuscitate his relationship with his unfaithful fiancee back home. The action unfolds in the confines of a Michigan zoo, a milieu that allows for plenty of metaphorical comparisons between Franklin and the trapped fauna. Bissell deftly portrays a couple lurching away from each other in fits and starts: "Kindness, once as uncomplicated as respiration, has a sick new venturesome quality. Anything they do for each other now is fuel for yet another misunderstanding." The story would stand up well in a collection set in the United States but, lacking the rest of the book's scenic and cultural pyrotechnics, seems misplaced as the final tale.

"In the end I could not really goad myself into believing that one's surroundings possessed some override able to strip away our human layers of civility and mercy," Bissell wrote in "Chasing the Sea," reacting to stories of government-sponsored torture in Uzbekistan. "At this moment, however, it made me feel better to think that it could."

Any privileged visitor to a struggling region can be excused for wanting to believe that brutality comes from outside rather than from within. To think otherwise would be to accept that we are capable of propelling ourselves and others toward disaster. In "God Lives in St. Petersburg," Americans do just that, setting up elaborate obstacle courses on punishing terrain. Their failure to pass these tests says as much about their unrealistic expectations and self-delusions as it does about the dangers and temptations that surround them.

Katherine Shonk is the author of "The Red Passport," a collection of short stories set in contemporary Russia.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service Date: January 30 2005 No: 405 RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service
RPCV Groups mobilize to support their Countries of Service. Over 200 RPCVS have already applied to the Crisis Corps to provide Tsunami Recovery aid, RPCVs have written a letter urging President Bush and Congress to aid Democracy in Ukraine, and RPCVs are writing NBC about a recent episode of the "West Wing" and asking them to get their facts right about Turkey.
RPCVs contend for Academy Awards  Date: January 31 2005 No: 416 RPCVs contend for Academy Awards
Bolivia RPCV Taylor Hackford's film "Ray" is up for awards in six categories including best picture, best actor and best director. "Autism Is a World" co-produced by Sierra Leone RPCV Douglas Biklen and nominated for best Documentary Short Subject, seeks to increase awareness of developmental disabilities. Colombian film "El Rey," previously in the running for the foreign-language award, includes the urban legend that PCVs teamed up with El Rey to bring cocaine to U.S. soil.

January 29, 2005: This Week's Top Stories Date: January 29 2005 No: 395 January 29, 2005: This Week's Top Stories
UPI says Suicides lower in Iraq after Lariam discontinued 28 Jan
Chris Starace makes DVD about life in Benin 28 Jan
Gaddi Vasquez tours Sri Lanka 27 Jan
Tom Hazuka receives writer's award 27 Jan
Raymond Wacks to oversee Baltimore's budget 27 Jan
L. A. Adams provides online assistance to village of Cochiraya 27 Jan
New blog helps prospective PCVs apply to PC 27 Jan
RPCV writes open letter to "West Wing" on Turkey episode 26 Jan
PC moves Guyana Volunteers from Flooding Areas 26 Jan
Taylor Hackford's 'Ray' scores six Oscar nominations 26 Jan
State building in Georgia may be named for Coverdell 25 Jan
Nick Craw to head Automobile Competition Committee 25 Jan
Peace Corps Announces Top Colleges 24 Jan
RPCV Francis J. Thomas was WWII Pearl Harbor vet 24 Jan
PC crafts strategy for Deborah Gardner murder case 23 Jan
Senator Bill Nelson says expand PC in South America 23 Jan
George Wallace is county's first poet laureate 20 Jan

Ask Not Date: January 18 2005 No: 388 Ask Not
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion Date: January 8 2005 No: 373 Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion
Senator Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, says in an op-ed, A chance to show the world America at its best: "Even as that worthy agency mobilizes a "Crisis Corps" of former Peace Corps volunteers to assist with tsunami relief, I believe an opportunity exists to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Peace Corps and its expansion to touch more and more lives."
RPCVs active in new session of Congress Date: January 8 2005 No: 374 RPCVs active in new session of Congress
In the new session of Congress that begins this week, RPCV Congressman Tom Petri has a proposal to bolster Social Security, Sam Farr supported the objection to the Electoral College count, James Walsh has asked for a waiver to continue heading a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, Chris Shays will no longer be vice chairman of the Budget Committee, and Mike Honda spoke on the floor honoring late Congressman Robert Matsui.
RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid  Date: January 4 2005 No: 366 Latest: RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid
Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
The World's Broken Promise to our Children Date: December 24 2004 No: 345 The World's Broken Promise to our Children
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.

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Story Source: Moscow Times

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