Tom Bissell “God Lives in St. Petersberg”

god-lives-in-st-petersburgPublished in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Tom Bissell is the best of The Believer‘s formidably ingenious staff of essayists, but in God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories he has turned to writing fiction about tiny former Soviet Central Asian countries you’ve probably never thought about. Bissell was a Peace Corps English instructor in Uzbekistan until he had a culture shock-induced breakdown and shipped out early, only to later return as a reporter for Harper’s magazine. As the United States began its attack on Afghanistan in autumn 2001, Bissell was stranded there, held back by what he describes as the bribe-hungry Uzbek border patrol. As one of Bissell’s characters, the spoiled son of a U.S. ambassador, puts it in one of his stories, it was “the kind of place that was so corrupt you had to bribe yourself to get out of bed in the morning.”

Bissell, examines the region through the eyes of visiting Americans in all of their various guises: North Face-clad outdoor adventure tourists, war correspondents, Christian missionaries, and United Nations scientists. These are tales about American privilege abroad, and perhaps first and foremost among these privileges is the ability to leave when things get the least bit unpleasant. The reader is linked with the protagonists in mutual naïveté about the region, and we learn its rules and systems through violating them as the characters commit blunder after blunder. Wounded in a car wreck and stranded at the mercy of an Afghan warlord, an American and an English war correspondent busy themselves by demonstrating their cringe-inducing paternalism and incapacity for gratitude before learning the full implications of losing their status as observers. Bissell’s writing is full of uncomfortable truths, brilliant wit, and dexterous language, skeptical of any and all political ideology. The collection is hit-and-miss, but also ambitious and likable enough to compensate for it.

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