Sunday, September 28, 2008

God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell

I don’t think I’m the only person to be burned out on Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s crowd, but I do appreciate some of the authors I have read for the first time within the journal’s pages. At the top of the list is Tom Bissell, who in his savage collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, delivers some of the flat out best writing about Americans and the rest of the world that I have ever come across.

Bissell joined the Peace Corps after college, returning how several months early for ‘emotional and complicated’ reasons. His interactions with the culture in Uzbekistan provided him with a lens to view the region and its relation to Americans. In ‘Aral,’ a female scientist goes to Uzbekistan at the request of the United Nations. But rather than following this career academic learn some sort of lesson about humanity, I was surprised when she was abducted by a KGB agent in order that he might show her his children, who have been blinded by the harsh chemical present in the drinking water. This agent’s harsh retorts to her assumptions about his culture, which uncomfortably are our own assumptions as well, are a rude awakening. Though it may be unsurprising to hear that America is exploiting third world labor and is disconnected from much of the world’s populace, Bissell’s writing makes us feel that on a deep, disturbing level.

Many readers may be familiar with his long story ‘Death Defier,’ which was included in The Best American Short Stories 2005, and concerns a photojournalist and his disconnect with his own emotions acting as a metaphor for America’s distance from the horrors that the media covers and covers up simultaneously. The title story concerns an American missionary in central Asia struggling with his inability to feel God’s presence and his sexuality.

In other stories we are witness to relationships that succeed in America being unable to survive another culture. Another story opens with an ambassador’s son having sex with two women when his mom walks in. As he shudders to a climax, the son provides the greatest line of the collection through a sheepish grin: ‘Two chicks at once, Mom,’

Though at times his word choice is a bit perplexing, using big words when short ones would do the same job without calling attention to themselves, Bissell’s prose is forceful and suited well to the confines of the short story. Devastating blows can be rendered and unlikable characters can be tolerated to a much greater degree than would be possible with a long work. His has a travel memoir and a book about his father and Vietnam, both of which I plan on reading in the near future.

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