CHASING THE SEA: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
Bissell's first journey to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 was cut short by heartache and illness. Memories of that failure dog his return in 2001 to write about the rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Once the size of Lake Michigan, the sea has already lost most of its water and will likely disappear by the middle of the next decade, leaving thousands of square kilometers of salty desert. Journalist Bissell examines that story, but also ponders broader questions about Uzbekistan and its people. Hooking up with Rustam, a young interpreter, he sets off on a road trip across the country. The format of the ensuing travelogue–cum–history lesson resembles that of itinerant political commentators like Robert Kaplan, right down to the repulsively exotic cuisine (e.g., boiled lamb's head) and digressionary mini-essays on the history of European imperialism in Central Asia. But Bissell rails against the way other authors "pinion entire cultures based upon how [their] morning has gone," aiming for a more accurate and balanced portrayal. An ongoing dialogue with Rustam over the region's history and culture, and the extent to which both were shaped by the Soviets, adds a personal dimension. The account doesn't flinch from portraying the region's corruption—crooked cops appear regularly on the scene—but despite the frequent bouts of despair, for both the region and himself, Bissell refuses to give up on the Uzbeks entirely. The humor and poignancy in this blend of memoir, reportage and history mark the author as a front-runner in the next generation of travel writers. (Sept. 23)
Forecast:Bissell, who was born in 1974, has worked as an editor at Henry Holt, has written for Harper's, McSweeney's, Esquire and Salon, and will have a piece in the next issue of Heidi Julavits's much-chatted-about new magazine, The Believer. His first book will undoubtedly garner attention from literary outlets and set the tone for an ambitious book-writing career.