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Sunday April 20, 2014
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Tom Bissell

 

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one of the best American travel narratives since the early work of Peter Matthiessen.

Bissell, who grew up in Escanaba and is not yet thirty, is one of a group of hot young writers who have been evolving a new prose style. On the surface this style evinces an ironic detachment that is often very funny. It also abounds in pop references — to everything from music to brand names — that can easily confuse readers even just a little older who haven't kept up. This popular referentiality is often combined with the grammar and diction of high culture. But beneath all these flourishes — and the real explanation for this new style's success — is a genuine moral sensibility that usually lies outside any of the familiar political categories.

All of this comes together in Chasing the Sea to make a book that is very much in its own category. Bissell includes a lot of history, finding good stories everywhere from before the invasions of Genghis Khan to after the fall of Gorbachev. There is a good deal about Islam in central Asia, and Bissell is very good about differentiating Turkish and Arabic influences. He re-creates several of the interesting characters he encountered in his travels, particularly Rustam, his translator and friend, who comfortably throws around "dude" and "bro" while explaining Uzbeki customs.

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