EW Staff
January 24, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

God Lives in St. Petersburg

Current Status
In Season
Tom Bissell

We gave it a B

The ugly American lives on?at least in fiction. A new crop of stories about Americans traveling and making asses of themselves in Asia arrives at an interesting historical moment, given recent, tragic headlines and ongoing U.S. military adventures. Three sharp young authors have produced promising debut collections that try to capture, on tiny, personal canvases, the touchy state of contemporary international relationships.

The first tale in Chicago-born Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s lively Sightseeing (Grove, $19.95) takes place at just the kind of palmy Thai resort that was devastated by the recent tsunami. ”This is how we count the days,” the narrator begins his account. ”June: The Germans come to the Island?football cleats, big T-shirts, thick tongues?speaking like spit. July: the Italians…” Skipping down the narrator’s roster of stereotypes (the French like chubby girls; the Brits, hashish), we get to the Americans: ”the fattest, stingiest of the bunch.”

The narrator should know. His father was a U.S. soldier; his Thai mother now runs a motel. She takes a dim view of her clientele: ”…all they really want is to ride some hulking gray [elephant]…and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer….” Her contempt is amply borne out when her son hooks up with an Ohio girl in a Budweiser bikini whose boyfriend (a grotesque, sunburned caricature) has been dallying with a prostitute. Lapcharoensap deftly converts the encounter in-to a transcendently funny metaphor for Thai-American interaction. But his portraits of Americans here never go beyond unflattering cliché. Lapcharoensap’s Americans aren’t just fat: They’re hopelessly broad.

Jess Row suffers from the opposite affliction: His subtlety borders on inscrutability. Row’s Train to Lo Wu (Dial, $23) describes encounters between tortured people?American, Polish, Chinese, all living in Hong Kong?who can’t connect. A philosophy professor thinks about how much he’d like to have a meaningful conversation with his adolescent daughters in ”Heaven Lake”?but he doesn’t. In ”The American Girl,” a blind masseur stonewalls an ambitious grad student who wants to record his life story. A passive American photographer in ”For You” watches his marriage crumble?then retreats to a Buddhist monastery to brood. He’s a frozen spirit whose motivations remain maddeningly opaque?a criticism that could be lodged against all of Row’s characters in these fascinating, frustrating stories.

The men in Tom Bissell’s terrific God Lives in St. Petersburg (Pantheon, $20) would never retire to a monastery in the face of a knock-down, dragout marital meltdown. In his scabrously funny ”Expensive Trips Nowhere,” a New York couple treks across the Kazakh steppes on one of those disastrous excursions familiar to fans of the late, great Paul Bowles, in which pampered Westerners are forced to confront barbarity and their own rotten souls. From tiny gestures and perfectly chosen snippets of dialogue, Bissell crafts a dazzling psychodrama about a clueless pair who never should have left Manhattan.

Sheltered American couples on holiday have no business thrill-seeking in Bissell’s savage central Asia. In fact, none of his Americans belong there, from the spoiled teen who narrates the hilarious ”The Ambassador’s Son” to the sexually confused missionary of the title story. It isn’t a small world after all, these tales suggest, but a very, very big one, full of people who are, as Bissell puts it, ”horrifyingly alive and unknowable.”

Sightseeing: B Train to Lo Wu: B- St. Petersburg: A

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