In Tom Bissell’s scabrously funny ”Expensive Trips Nowhere,” a story from his collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, 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.”