Excerpt from God Lives In St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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God Lives In St. Petersburg

and Other Stories

by Tom Bissell

God Lives In St. Petersburg
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2005, 224 pages
    Jan 2006, 224 pages

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"That was rather how I found it." Graves's face pinched with fresh discomfort. He sighed, then seemed to go paler. His eyelids were sweaty. Graves stepped toward the Corolla searchingly, arms out, and lowered himself onto the bumper. "Think I need a rest." The driver fetched a straw-covered red blanket from the Corolla and wrapped it around Graves's shoulders.

They had been in Kunduz for two days when Donk noticed Graves tenderly hugging himself no matter the heat thrown off by their hotel room's oil-burning stove. His pallor grayed by the day, and soon he was having trouble seeing. Initially Graves had not been concerned. They went about their business of covering the war, Donk snapping Kunduz's ragtag liberators and the dead-eyed prisoners locked up in one of the city's old granaries, Graves reading ten hours' worth of CNN updates a day on his laptop and worrying over his past, present, and future need to "file." But his fever worsened, and he took a day's bed rest while Donk toured Kunduz on foot with the city's local commander, a happily brutal man who twice tried selling Donk a horse. When Donk returned to the hotel a few minutes before curfew that evening he found Graves twisted up in his vomit-stained sheets, his pillow lying in a sad crumple across the room. "Deborah," Graves had mumbled when Donk stirred him. "Listen. Turn the toaster? Please turn the toaster?"

Donk did not know Graves well. He had met him only ten days ago in Pyanj, Tajikistan, where many of the journalists were dovetailing stories by day and playing poker with worthless Tajik rubles by night. All were waiting for official clearance before venturing into Afghanistan. Graves-with an impatience typical of print journalists, their eyewitness being more perishable-elected to cast a few pearly incentives at the feet of the swinish border guards and asked Donk if he wanted to tag along. Donk, dispatched here by a British newsweekly, was under no real pressure to get in. His mandate was not one of breaking news but chronicling the country's demotic wartime realities. He did not even have a return flight booked. But he agreed.

Donk did not regret following Graves, even as he forced mefloquine hydrochloride tablets into his mouth, crusty with stomach ejecta, and splashed in some canteen water to chase them. Graves, Donk was certain, had malaria, even though it was late November, a season at the outer edge of probability for contracting the disease, and even though he knew Graves had been taking mefloquine since October. The next day Donk convinced one of Kunduz's aid workers-a grim black Belgian-to give him a small cache of chloroquine phosphate pills, as mefloquine was useful mostly as a malaria preventative. The chloroquine seemed to help, and Graves, still as shivery as a foundling, had recommenced with his worries about filing a story. Graves was rather picky with his stories, seeking only narratives that presented this war in its least inspiring light. Unfortunately, Kunduz seemed fairly secure and the people weirdly grateful. Indeed, despite predictions of a long, bloody, province-by-province conflict, 60 percent of the country had fallen to American-led forces in this, the war's fourth week.

After they were robbed, Graves noted that his chloroquine pills were among the missing items. As the regrouped nasties waged this morning's hopeless surprise counterattack, neither Donk nor Graves had the presence of mind to beg more pills before they left, though Donk was fairly certain the aid workers would have pulled out of Kunduz too. That one could simply leave a firefight and come back a bit later was one of the odder things about this shadowy war. Roads were safe one day, suicide the next. Warlords thought to be relatively trustworthy one week were reported to have personally overseen the meticulous looting of an aid-group warehouse the next. All of this seemed designed to prevent anyone from actually fighting. From the little Donk had seen and heard, gun battles here seemed founded upon one's ability to spray bullets blindly around rocks and walls and then beat a quick, spectacular retreat.

Excerpted from God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell, pages 3 to 12. From the short story titled 'Death Defier'. Copyright © 2005 by Tom Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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