Peace Corps Writers

God Lives in St. Petersburg

God Lives in St. Petersburg
And Other Stories

by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97)
January 2005
224 pages

Read editor John Coyne's interview with Tom Bissell from November 2003

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

TOM BISSELL’S SECOND BOOK, a collection of short stories called God Lives in St. Petersburg, offers the reader an extensivePrinter friendly version travelogue through the bleak, barren landscapes of central Asia, a struggle for human decency and responsibility in the face of foreign troubles and, most thematically and uncomfortably, an experience of existential angst to which Mr. Bissell offers no real solution. These six tales introduce an array of Americans whose lives intersect with the various nation-states reborn following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet failure is a fitting, and one assumes, intentional backdrop for Bissell’s characters who battle personal weakness but who continue life beyond the framework of these stories in troubling circumstances.
     Mr. Bissell served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan for a year, from 1996 to 1997, an experience which undoubtedly, like many other Peace Corps writers before him, provided ample fodder for his stories. Thankfully, these tales offer portraits of such varying personalities that any suggestion of barely disguised autobiography — can you say Paul Theroux? — is fortunately absent. What Bissell does do however, and this is no bad thing, is stylistically position himself as the benefactor of several well-known post-war writers who came before him, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Paul Bowles.
     The most striking similarity with Hemingway is in the triangular relationship in “Expensive Trips Nowhere” between an American couple traveling across the rocky plains of Kazakhstan and their hale, rugged guide, Viktor, who served with the Afghani mujahideen against Soviet forces. The husband, an ineffectual coward living off his parents’ trust fund, is marginalized by a series of such hapless blunders that by the end of the story the reader assumes the masculine Viktor will sexually possess his wife. The story title indicates the couple’s desperate struggle to discover excitement in an otherwise hollow matrimony and the tale is a self-acknowledged reflection of Hemingway’s tale “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” another story of male emasculation. This same spirit is evident throughout Bissell’s other stories as well. One recalls Hemingway’s protagonist Nick Adams who, traumatized by military service and a physical injury in the Great War, struggles with psychological demons. Bissell’s characters and the post-Soviet states they inhabit fight for value and meaning beyond the angst of personal failure and national identity.
     The specter of Paul Bowles’s literary masterpiece The Sheltering Sky haunts in particular Bissell’s first story “Death Defiler.” It is the longest and farthest reaching tale and, we are told in an Author’s Note, the most recently written, which may imply a developed maturity on the part of the writer. “Death Defiler” begins with a freak road accident that leaves two war journalists stranded in the Afghani desert. Graves — aptly named — suffers from a severe strain of malaria whose symptoms grow more apparent as he is exposed to the natural desert elements. Eventually Graves and his companion Donk are given sanctuary, according to local customs, by a warlord , but who shows no concern for Graves’ deteriorating condition. Donk struggles to convince his host to retrieve antibiotics from nearby Mazar and finally, with no option left, sets off himself in search of a reputed grass he is told, but which he does not believe, will save his friend. Such life-and-death struggles for affluent Westerners depending on the inadequate assistance of culturally distant people echo the abandonment encountered by Port and Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky. The outcome in Bissell’s tale is as dire and tragic as in Bowles’ tale of post-World War Two ennui.
     The post-9/11 war in Afghanistan of “Death Defiler” benefits from Bissell’s adroit use of indirect allusion. Osama Bin Laden is only referred to as “he,” while the rumble of fighter jets piloting overhead is audible but never visible. In fact Graves and Donk argue over whether the fighter planes might be American or British. This hints, as in The Sheltering Sky, at an unstable grasp on objects and realities. The war’s effect on these characters is indirect, impersonal and experienced from the shadows. They may not die from flesh wounds but residual emotional scars may prove equally fatal.
    Bissell would not mean for the reader to indict the Afghani or any central Asian culture for the Americans’ weaknesses in these stories. At least, as a returned Volunteer, one would hope not. In a poignant monologue from “Aral,” Bissell allows the voice of Central Asia to speak in its own right and on its own terms. A KGB agent presumes to speak without due formality to an American biologist visiting Uzbekistan on behalf of the United Nations. “You have no tragedy and forget that such things exist,” accuses the agent. “And if you know they do, you blame those whom tragedy befalls. Americans are a people who’ve let their souls grow fat.” While the speaker acknowledges the problems of his own land, he similarly brings to light the ideological, narrow-minded mistakes of well-meaning Americans whose presence in his land and whose dubious contributions may prove more hurtful than helpful.
     In one respect and in hindsight, this reviewer has been unfair in comparing Bissell too closely to other post-war, existential writers. Each scribe worthy of his salt attempts singularity in the face of all pens that have come before, and should therefore stand judged by his own merits. To this lone fault, then, Tom Bissell stands guilty: that his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer provided such a wealth of useful material that his contribution to the worthy literary tradition of post-war fiction was both intentional and ambitious. In the collection of stories that is God Lives in St. Petersburg, the writer reinvigorates in today’s readers the despair and pain of those who have ever sought respite and peace in the benighted days following war. For Bissell’s readers in the early 21st century, the attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the issues we contend with. Failure, fear and struggle are neither here or there, but currents we tread in daily as tragedy, bloodshed and terrorist acts abound. Our experience is to stand witness to our political leaders’ myopic pronouncements and the suffering they bestow upon both the world’s guilty and innocent. Will we ever be the same again?
     Bissell does not write to answer this question. He writes to ask it again and again and again . . .
Joe Kovacs lives in Washington, DC. He writes for WorldView, the quarterly membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association, and is currently editing his second novel.
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