God Lives In St Petersburg, by Tom Bissell

The collapse of certainty and morality in a post-Soviet vacuum
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The Independent Culture

The macho tone of "Death Defier", the first story in this collection, makes it sound as if Tom Bissell is after the Hemingway touch. Strong emotions are his business. But macho yields to desperate after a foreign correspondent and his cameraman crash their car in dangerously unpredictable Afghanistan, cNovember 2001.

Mostly, these fine stories are set in Central Asia, and picture the chaos of life in the Russian wake. Bissell, a former Peace Corps volunteer, traces a world in which certainty and morality have collapsed, and sees how it hits outsiders, especially Americans. Most are naïve; some set out with decent intentions. Life and death are fortuitous, the best men don't win and there is no place for insight.

Donk the cameraman and Graves, a Brit suffering from malaria, make it to a village ruled by an Afghan warlord. While the US military dominates in the background, the chance to make meaningful contact is elusive. Each man probes the other over his readiness to die, and yet what unfolds is unexpectedly cruel and futile.

Amanda Reese, an expert in irrigation delegated by the UN to investigate the dying Aral Sea, is more fastidious, less of an "asshole", than her two male colleagues. When the consequences of food poisoning - and Bissell can turn the grimmest details into a wretched poetry - maroon the men in their hotel, Amanda sets off alone, only to be kidnapped by an individual who regrets that "Americans are people who've let their souls grow fat".

Youngish people from a too-affluent world, especially those filled with "the boundless naïveté Americans have for places that aren't America", risk falling to pieces. Amanda knows Russian and has self-presence, but Jayne and Douglas unwisely treat Kazakhstan as a playground, paying a veteran to lead them over rough terrain.

One horror of war-torn Afghanistan takes a while for cameraman Donk to focus on: no women. Likewise, there is none except Russian-speaking whores in The Capital, where US ambassador's son Alec runs amok. There is his mother, but he is too far gone to notice.

Faintly, women still count as redeemers. Timothy, the Christian missionary in Uzbekistan, might have been saved by the teenage girl urged upon him by her mother. But in a narrative occasionally reminiscent of Somerset Maugham's "Rain", this lost man is no longer master of himself. Bissell's message, in this resonant first collection? "People are horrifyingly alive and unknowable."

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