Friday, April 22, 2016

Tom Bissell on his short-story collection "God Lives in St. Petersburg"

(Originally published in the Denver Post)

Desperate Times in Central Asia

By Dylan Foley

“The worst feeling is when you are robbed by a cop,” says the writer Tom Bissell of his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in 1996. “It would usually start with a negotiation on how big the fine was. Once a cop reached into my wallet, grabbed a big wad of the local currency and said, ‘This is your fine.’”

The chaos, insanity and crime of post-Soviet Central Asia infuses Bissell's vivid debut story collection, “God Lives in St. Petersburg” (Pantheon, $20). The book is full of tales of isolated Americans acting badly from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan. In a sense, the stories are a twisted, gallows-humor version of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.” Culture clashes are a given, and for some characters like the callow war photographer and an unfaithful and depressed missionary, events turn deadly.

Bissell’s own experience in the Peace Corps was a disaster. “I had a nervous collapse,” he says from his Lower Manhattan apartment where an observer can see a sliver of Ground Zero. "At the time, quitting the program after seven months was humiliating and mortifying, but I am really glad that I got things out of the way. Failing at something when you didn’t expect to early in life is pretty helpful, as is seeing a part of the world that is filled with suffering, just plain flat-out suffering.”

The 31-year-old Bissell, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and writer for McSweeney’s, eventually went back to Central Asia, and wrote the 2003 travel book “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia,” which chronicled his visit to the Aral Sea, the most polluted body of water in the world, a toxic gift from the old Soviet Union.

It was Central Asia that also formed Bissell’s fiction. “I wrote four novels in the past 12 years,” he says. “I didn’t really feel that I was saying anything different than any number of writers. It wasn’t until I came back in 1996 that I started writing these stories. I felt like I was writing stories that I hadn’t read.”

Isolation and loneliness are the primary themes. “That was one of the mainline of emotion that these stories hit, that sense of feeling totally alone in a place that doesn’t feel all that welcoming all the time,” says Bissell.

In each story, Bissell uses small fragments of his own autobiography. “The Afghanistan story was based on my brief, miserable career as a war correspondent,” he says. “I was sent there by a magazine that never published my piece.  I wanted to create a memorable character, a short, kind of fat lothario who has lucked into a plum war correspondent thing and is untouched by it.

“Just about every story has some screaming neon autobiographical detail, like the story with the guy who’s wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt,”says Bissell, pointing to his own chest. Bissell’s shirt du jour is an Aquaman t-shirt.

Bissell puts in the searing dance of a couple breaking up at the zoo, not pulling punches at himself. “That story is as nakedly autobiographical as you can get,” he admits, where the woman ending the affair draws the man close and pushes him away in the same sentence. “There is a choreography to breaking up. That story captures it, at least how I experienced it. The guy is kind of a jerk. I wanted to write about a side of me that is kind of unpleasant.”

Countries like Uzbekistan are full of American Christian missionaries. Though banned by the local governments, they try to convert Muslims and atheists. “I met a lot of missionaries in Central Asia,” he says. “I got the idea of writing about the missionary experience, but also about the question of religion and sexuality.

Central Asia turns American missionaries on their heads. “For a missionary, you grow up in your suburban Atlanta community or in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and your church is the center of your life,” says Bissell, who hails from Michigan. “Suddenly, you go to a part of the world where there are no Christians. You think, ‘This doesn’t make sense. There are millions of people, and none of them are Christians.’

“Traveling, at least for me, was a process of learning that reality is not in English, that truth is not American, and that Christianity is not the emotional and religious atmosphere that exists everywhere. For someone whose whole life is based on adherence to a certain series of articles of faith, to go to a place where they are entirely in absence is mind-blowing and hard to deal with.”

Bissell’s missionary characters comes from his own infatuations. “I have an obsession with religion,” he confesses. “I was a Catholic. One of the novels I tried to write was about the 12 apostles. I have an intense religious infatuation with religious arcana, and an interest in fanaticism. I am one of those people who when a Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door, I invite them in.”

The most compelling story in the book is “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” which won the Pushcart Prize a few years ago. The story starts as a farce about a gay missionary grappling with his sexual desires. It quickly turn into a dark tale, when a desperate ethnic Russian woman offers her 14-year-old daughter to the missionary, to get the girl out of the country where she has no future. The mother offers up the title of the story in a bitter rant about being an ethnic Russian in godless Central Asia.

“It is probably the most ambivalent thing that I have ever written,” says Bissell. The chilling ending leaves much room for interpretation. "I wanted that ambiguity and ambivalence in the ending. A lot of people, including  my family, want to know where the hell that story came from.”

The roots of the story come in a desperate circumstances of Central Asia and Bissell’s own trauma as a Peace Corps volunteer. “I had a friend who was offered a 15-year-old girl by her mother,” says Bissell. “It was so stunning. Also, I had a little girl named Susanna that I was teaching in Uzbekistan. She was 13 or 14, a very sweet little girl. Obviously, there was no romantic attachment, but she had these big tears in her eyes when I told her I was leaving. I was haunted by leaving her behind.

 “There were two forces of desperation,” Bissell notes. “One is the desperation of people to escape bad conditions, and the other is the Westerner’s inability to deal with all these valid needs. These two experiences, the profound failure and the sense of what I would be getting into if I tried to help people, really stayed with me. What is helping someone? Missionaries are great until they actually start making converts.”

Dylan Foley is a book critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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