Throughout the month I will also focus on some old short story collections that I reviewed in the past, back when the EWN saw the majority of my time spent doing reviews and interviews. I'm not going to change or fix the reviews, I'm going to assume you've all see what L.S. had to say about me a few years back in the L.A. Times and realize what you're in for.
God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell
Originally reviewed 2/8/2005
There are only six stories in Tom Bissell’s debut collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg, but once you’ve put the book down you’ll swear you’ve read more. Bissell doesn’t just capture a character, or the secondary characters, or the setting of his stories, or the situations going on, but instead captures all of that and more within each of these little gems.
Not only does Bissell capture all aspects of his stories extremely well, but he also has come up with interesting characters and stories. Each protagonist, as well as the bulk of the supporting characters, are well rounded, three dimensional individuals. Within a page or two the reader cares about their plights. The setting throughout the collection is Central Asia: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other unnamed central Asian locales.
The storylines? A female scientist going to study the Aral Sea is kidnapped and taken to the Sea, but given a different reason to be interested; two journalists without any similarities in their backgrounds bond only to have an Afghanistan warlord decide their paths; a trust fund recipient and his wife hike through Kazakhstan with a veteran of the Soviet-Afghanistan war as their guide – they both run into hooligans and the fact that the guide seems quite interested in the wife; a missionary, already searching to find his own way back to his faith, is presented an even larger dilemma.
The protagonists have traveled far, some to find themselves, some to generate at least a little excitement in their lives, and even a few with the intent of helping others. Bissell nails what it is in each of them that led to their wandering so far from home. At the same time, he is spot on perfect in his description of that far off land. Without trying, the reader will benefit the time Bissell has himself spent in Central Asia. You can’t help but learn about life in that area of the world – how they cope with the socio-economical, and political, changes the countries have gone through in the last twenty years.
Bissell fills these stories with humor, and emotion. Just when the reader might be tensing up over a character’s plight, he’ll throw in a little black humor to lighten the page up a bit. He does this in a manner that draws the reader through the story without the slightest inclination to set the book down. In fact, the first disappointment the reader will encounter is when story number six is done, and the book is ready to be put down.