Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Mongolia: Tea of Ulaanbaatar

Christopher R. Howard’s Tea of Ulaanbaatar is, hmm, a gritty account of a Peace Corps volunteer’s life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Writing “life and work” just doesn’t seem to fit here because Warren, our anti-hero, doesn’t appear to spend much time at his job teaching English: he’s too busy going to bars, spending time with his Mongolian girlfriend, and (ab)using tsus, a red tea rumored to inspire all sorts of madness.

Though Tea of Ulaanbaatar doesn’t quite feel fully realized, it does some things very well. Howard succeeds nicely at showing the disaffection of Warren and his fellow Peace Corps volunteers, most of whom seem to be engaged in ongoing attempts to escape something or somebody, whether through travel or tea. They are a grotesque lot, led by Samantha, the over-mascaraed and overwrought medical officer for the Peace Corps who oversees the volunteers. And then there’s the atmosphere: urban decay, moral decay, discos, desperation (public and private), and, of course, crime. Oh, and Warren is phobic about germs. Very phobic. He scrubs and he’s a little obsessed with the bubonic plague.

It’s more difficult to explain what didn’t quite come together in Tea of Ulaanbaatar. The nihilism and nastiness seemed real enough but the appearance of the criminal aspect of the book—which begins with the idea of exporting lots of tsus to the United States—felt a bit too much like an attempt to amp up the book with action. Some elements, particularly the grotesqueness, the hallucinations (or realities?), and Warren’s memories of a girlfriend, felt a little too easy. Still, I have to give Howard credit for writing such a vivid book. Tea of Ulaanbaatar is apparently based, to some degree, on Howard’s own experiences: according to the bio on the book, Howard “spent a few months of an aborted Peace Corps sojourn in Mongolia in the late 1990s.”

Up Next: Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident then Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel. I have quite a few books piled up, particularly after skipping last week because I grated off the tip of my finger and couldn’t type!

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