I have been a fan of Tom Bissell's writing ever since I came across it in Harper's Magazine. I specifically remember reading a short story set in Central Asia that eventually would be included in his entertaining short story collection God Lives in St. Petersberg and Other Stories. There were other nonfiction pieces as well, starting with the magazine version of what would become a book about his father, who fought in the Vietnam war, and later their trip back to Vietnam: The Father of All Things. And also, the magazine article about the natural disaster that is the Aral Sea that begat this book, Chasing The Sea: Lost Among The Ghost Of Empire In Central Asia (2003). I doubted that I would ever read this book, thinking it would be unlikely that I would develop an interest in Central Asia. Well, since I am returning there for a second visit (the first was five years ago in 2010), to Kyrgyzstan again for a volunteer conference in English language education. I figured that this book would be good background reading for a return visit, and it was. In fact there were some sections that took place in Kyrgyzstan and all countries in the region must be referred to when talking about the history of the region.
This book is one of those books that is hard to describe and pin down, something the Marketing department loved I am sure. It is a personal memoir of Bissell's connection to the region, which began as a largely unsuccessful stint with the Peace Corps where he lost it and quit nine months into stay. It is also a sort of travelogue that allows him to ruminate on the upheavals that have rocked the region and Uzbekistan throughout the centuries. It is also an act of reportage on Uzbekistan as it was when he was traveling there in the early 2000s. Despite these threads, there is yet another, it is also largely about his earthy, idiosyncratic translator Rustam, who guides him throughout the novel dropping bon mots of wisdom along the way in his American slang-laced vocabulary. Bissell eventually makes his way to the Aral Sea where his reportage on the human devastation of this lake ended up as a Harper's Magazine article and the impetus for this book.That being said this section of the book is a scant 50 pages: it's the journey, not the destination that matters.
I think it is, here, in this book, that Bissell takes Robert D. Kaplan to task for uninformed reporting in the region and scare-mongering. (I know that I read another article somewhere in which Bissell questions many of Kaplan's conclusion about this region and questions observation made while reporting). I used to be something of a Kaplan devotee, and still thinks he can bring a lot of insight into the regions he visits. But the scare-mongering that has been his calling card has become stale and I lost a lot of respect for him due to his infatuation with Marines when he was embedded with them for his books Imperial Grunts. Need I mention that this book is less than objective. However, getting back to Bissell, there are many memorable descriptions of people, cities, the surroundings, poor driving, bad food, and excellent descriptions and similes that were clever and engaging. Overall, I found this book engaging, entertaining, and informative as well as being a page turner.