erasing clouds

Book Review: God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other stories by Tom Bissell

reviewed by dan heaton

Writer Tom Bissell clearly identifies with the plights of aid workers and journalists working in extremely difficult foreign situations. Dealing with the stifling governments and militaries of such countries as Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan leads to the humiliation or complete destruction of most of his characters. This connection is more than just a coincidence, as Bissell actually worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in 1996. He also returned to the area in 2001 and used the experience to craft his 2003 nonfiction book Chasing the Sea. With God Lives in St. Petersburg, his fictional collection of short stories, Bissell chronicles a diverse group of idealistic young characters traumatized considerably by their time overseas.

One of the most effective tales is “Death Defier,” which depicts the nasty experiences of two journalists who must journey into a warlord’s territory in Afghanistan following a vehicle accident. While one of them struggles with malaria, the other strives mightily to seek help for his comrade. Unfortunately, he quickly discovers the frustrating situation in the country and even the American military’s callous nature. “Aral” provides another difficult story of a young female scientist trying to discover the source of the nasty pollution to the Aral Sea. However, her attempts quickly become more difficult when she comes into contact with a KGB agent. “Expensive Trip Nowhere” is less political than many of the others, but it does showcase how experiences in a foreign land can reveal the limitations in a marriage gone stale.

Bissell’s writing covers many dreary subjects but retains an energetic, lively tone that makes this collection an especially quick read. The characters are often unlikable and difficult to align with, but they feel especially real and remain involving throughout each tale. Even the stories that appear more optimistic generally end in tragedy, which reveals a bleak outlook on each situation. Bissell offers plenty of problems but few solutions and generates an almost hopeless atmosphere to many situations. Readers looking for a rougher look at the dark side of human (and our governments’) nature should definitely consider reading this intriguing compilation.

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