Monday, May 23, 2011
Short Story Month: Tom Bissell's God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tom Bissell's collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories, published by Pantheon (January 2005). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 4:2, Fall 2005.
Review by Andrew Benedict-Nelson
In Bissell's God Lives in St. Petersburg, we learn that a picture of Ernest Hemingway adorns every English classroom in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Along with Jack London and Paul Robeson, Hemingway represented a model American for Soviet youth. But for most Americans, Hemingway represents the ideal expatriate, the artist who has forsaken his homeland for the pursuit of truth and the occasional marlin.
Yet as the stories in Bissell's book show us, today's aspiring expats (no matter how earnest) have become absurd in a world of unchallenged American power. These six tales follow Americans in Central Asia, specifically the region's former Soviet republics and Afghanistan. Each story's principal character goes abroad looking for something--an escape from the death of a loved one, aid for an ailing marriage, academic prestige--only to find one's personal assumptions challenged far from home. Each character also loses something precious while retaining a cumbersome American-ness.
Many of the observations of these stories (and an earlier memoir) are based on Bissell's experience as an English teacher in Uzbekistan. As a result, the book is more about what it means to be American overseas than what it means to be Tajik or Kyrgyz at home. This does represent neglect on the author's part, but honesty. Books that purport to portray the authentic culture or genuine plight of another people often wind up as patronizing or just plain wrong. Bissell's book is neither. Indeed, he has quite accurately drawn the many wrinkles in America's present, ambivalent face to the world.
For instance, in the title story (which won the Pushcart Prize), a young missionary named Timothy discovers how much of his identity, both religious and sexual, depended on familiar surroundings. In the United States, the presence of God had been a "glowing cylinder." In Uzbekistan, that presence has become distant radio static. Meanwhile, his students in an English class, cynical about the discredited rumor of a man named Khristos, seem to care more about Timothy's relationship to the American embassy than to the divine.
It's no surprise that this story, like most in the collection, ends up badly for its main character. But Bissell does not appear to have an anti-American axe to grind. Each of his characters decays in a uniquely beautiful way, independent of birthplace. Through Bissell's dexterous narrative style, not unlike Hemingway's, we discover that we Americans can still get good and lost just about anywhere.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson serves as Digital Agitator with The Insight
Labs, a Chicago-based initiative that brings together creative minds
from the private sector with leaders from non-profit and government to
solve seemingly intractable challenges. His work has appeared in the
Times Literary Supplement, Bookmarks Magazine, Another Chicago
Magazine, and other venues.