God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories
Half a world away, countries like Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have often seemed exotic to Westerners, and never more so than in the eyes of post-Sept. 11 Americans. These republics framing Russia’s outer flank have an eclectic mix of influences—mostly Islamic in religion, formerly Soviet in politics, with a seeming propensity for despair and environmental disaster. This area, collectively known as Central Asia, is the compelling setting for Tom Bissell’s new collection of short stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg. But it is only the beginning of what Bissell gets absolutely right.
The stories themselves are compact and plot-driven. A photojournalist in Afghanistan tries to help a gravely ill colleague after they are captured by a local warlord. A scientist studying the Aral Sea confronts incomprehensible devastation and the impossibility of putting it right. Newlyweds from New York distract themselves with an adventure tour; their guide is a veteran of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Bissell’s strong sense of narrative is matched by fresh and vivid writing. An American arguing politics with his British colleague says it’s like “being handed an armful of eels and then being asked to pretend they were bunnies.” In the story of the newlyweds’ adventure trip, Bissell artfully cuts back and forth between talk around a campfire at day’s end and an encounter with bandits on the road earlier that morning, allowing the tension between action and conversation to crescendo and de-crescendo. Yet Bissell is not a show-off: He writes with purpose, throwing in sly bits of humor for leavening.
The only piece in the book that misses the mark is the title story, “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” though, in its defense, it did win the Pushcart Prize. The story’s main character, a missionary agonizing over his own sinfulness, is a variation on the stale, Jimmy Swaggart-like stereotype of the hypocritical Christian with the secret guilty sex life.
The most fascinating aspect of these stories, though, is the interplay between America as an idealized concept and the individual Americans who travel abroad. America the country looms large, flexing muscles of military and economic power. Meanwhile, Americans themselves are alone in foreign countries, often lost, isolated and weak. God Lives in St. Petersburg, explores these tensions, bringing us along for the trip.