Ghosts of empire—past, present, and future— haunt God Lives in St. Petersburg, Tom Bissell’s debut story collection. His journalists, war vets, aid workers, and gangsters are sand caught in the grinding gears of the Great Powers’ machinations. “Death Defier” (about a photojournalist who, like Thomas Pynchon’s slovenly lothario Tyrone Slothrop, avoids death as it rains down all around him) begins, “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” The vivid color contrasts signal harsh events to come in this post-9-11 war, while Afghanistan’s omnipresent dust and malarial fevers befog Westerners, who irritably question why a people who can stave off “several of the world’s most go-getting empires [cannot] find it within themselves to pave a fucking road?”
In “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” a trust fund couple from New York hikes through Kazakhstan’s rocky wastelands, guided by a gruff veteran of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Brutalized by that campaign, which was marked by Russia’s ignominious defeat at the hands of American-backed jihadists, Viktor’s ill-hidden contempt for his soft-bodied charges dovetails bluntly into his attempt to seduce the wife: “You sleep with me in my tent tonight. Your oaf is asleep.”
Although Bissell himself served a brief hitch in the Peace Corps, his characters are seriously altruism-challenged. The wastrel American protag of “The Ambassador’s Son” embodies the Seven Deadly Sins, drunkenly shepherding a fallen missionary to a nightclub where “techno-bass pound[s] in Kong-summoning booms,” and then into an abyss beyond all but God’s redemption. The three U.N. scientists of “Aral,” en route to the environmental holocaust sparked by Soviet-era irrigation projects that transformed a once thriving “sea of plenty” into a “shrinking pestilent bog,” snipe viciously at one another. Only when one of them is stranded on the sun-riven, vestigial seafloor, stripped of her passport and referred to simply as “the American,” is such self-absorbed backbiting exposed as yet another arrogant luxury defining the world’s reigning empire.