This Is Not Civilization

Robert Rosenberg, Author
Robert Rosenberg, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $24 (293p) ISBN 978-0-618-38601-7
Reviewed on: 06/14/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Paperback - 293 pages - 978-0-618-56206-0
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Ah, the happy days of the 1990s, when Americans could travel abroad fearing only natural disasters and imperfect plumbing. This rollicking first novel brings readers to some unusual locales--post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, an Apache reservation, earthquake-shattered Istanbul--to tell the story of Jeff Hartig, a young man who travels the world but can't leave behind his own shortcomings. After an unhappy time running a teen center in the Apache town of Red Cliff, Ariz., recent college graduate Jeff hitches up with the Peace Corps, landing at an even more remote destination--the Kyrgyz village of Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka, deep in the steppes of Central Asia. The village's one asset is a defunct cheese factory funded by government subsidies, run by the ebullient, generous Anarbek Tashtanaliev, who takes it upon himself to help Jeff experience the overwhelming wonders of Kyrgyz hospitality. Anarbek also has a beautiful, English-speaking daughter named Nazira, who understands more clearly than her fellow villagers how little one American visitor can accomplish for them. Ashamed of his own ineffectualness, Jeff flees Kyrgyzstan, leaving behind one lasting impression--a pregnant Nazira. He next alights in Istanbul, where he settles once again into expatriate life, until Anarbek, Nazira and his young Apache friend Adam appear, asking Jeff to make good on all his promises of assistance. Then the 1999 earthquake hits, in a harrowing sequence that envelops the entire mismatched group and plunges Istanbul straight back into the uncivilized world. Rosenberg's ability to illustrate these oddball settings--based on his own time in the Peace Corps and elsewhere--is pitch perfect, a vibrant mix of the serious and the absurd. With Jeff, he puts a brilliant new spin on a compelling type: the Well-Meaning American.
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