Bissell follows a nonfiction account of his travels in Central Asia (Chasing the Sea, 2003) with this slim but rigorous debut collection of six darkly passionate stories about Americans who have chosen to visit or live in that most difficult part of the world.
In “Death Defier,” a very ill British correspondent and a healthy American photojournalist become stranded somewhere in Afghanistan. On a hopeless quest for grasses that the local warlord says can cure malaria, the American remembers his haphazard evolution from midwestern nobody to chronicler of death as he heads toward his own fate. While Bissell paints a vivid picture of the Central Asian world, this opening story is primarily a character study, as is the final piece, “Animals in Our Lives,” in which the protagonist, having returned from abroad, is unable to find a place for himself in his old life or with the woman he loves. But in most of the tales, the region and its native inhabitants come to the forefront to defeat the generally hapless and morally iffy Americans. A humorless, by-the-books biologist on her way to study the pollution of the “Aral,” the sea in Turkistan, finds herself kidnapped by a mysterious Russian she assumes is KGB until he introduces her to his blinded, orphaned children. A trust-fund couple buoying up a failing marriage with “Expensive Trips Nowhere” end up in Kazakhstan, where the husband shows his cowardice and the wife finds herself increasingly drawn to their guide, a veteran of the Afghan war whose knowing disdain for his charges does not rule out sex. “The Ambassador’s Son,” a degenerate wastrel, finally gets in over his head when he takes on the local degenerates. In the almost Dostoyevskian title story, a missionary teacher who already considers himself corrupted by his affair with a local man faces ultimate moral defeat before his students.
Graham and Ernest move over, you’ve got company.