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Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell is the author of a collection of short stories God Lives in St. Petersburg (Pantheon, 2005), winner of the Rome Prize, and two travel narratives: Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (Pantheon, 2003), cited by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 86 best travel books of all time; and The Father of All Things (Pantheon, 2007), selected as one of the best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is working on a travel book about the tombs of the Twelve Apostles.


The Hinnom Valley, looking west from the Jerusalem’s Old City. (Ian W. Scott / CC BY-SA 2.0).

Looking for Judas

Summer 2009 | Essays

We had been looking for Hakeldama for close to an hour, wandering through deep, desertic, geological gouges stubbled with little merkins of shrubbery and low gray trees that look squashed and drained of chlorophyll. The sun did strange things to the landscape here, vivifying the dominating grays and sands, weakening the greens, and walling off thousands of hilltop and hillside houses behind shimmering heat-haze force fields. 

Illustration by Gary Panter

My Interview with the Avenger

Spring 2008 | Fiction

This is a story about heroes. Yes, it is also a profile of a famous man, a “celebrity,” I suppose, but it is first and foremost a story about heroes, what they mean, and the draperies of significance with which we decorate them. The hero in question came to us as unexpectedly as a micrometeorite, and little has been the same since his impact. Of course, nearly everyone remembers how and when the man now known as the Avenger first made his existence public. Most origin stories are cumbrous with mythic overlay. But the Avenger arrived in twinkly, almost pointillistic detail. There was nothing to add to the story to make it better; it defeated augmentation.

Loch Ness Memoir

March 13, 2007

 August 2006 Loch Ness, Scotland. (Credit: M. Coe.)   History shows again and again How nature points up the folly of man —Blue Öyster Cult, “Godzilla” Char and I are waiting for Mandy out in front of the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibit [...]

Euphorias of Perrier: The Case Against Robert D. Kaplan

Summer 2006 | Criticism

How to deal with this fractious world is Kaplan’s great question. Some years ago, he has written, after a conference where “intellectuals held forth about the moral responsibility of the United States in the Balkans,” he took a cab back to the airport and was asked by the cabbie, “If there’s no oil there, what’s in it for us?” This was, Kaplan says, “a question none of the intellectuals had answered.” And shame on them, because “thousands of words and a shelf of books in recent years about our moral interest in the region do not add up to one sentence of national interest. . . . It is only from bottom-line summaries that clear-cut policy emerges, not from academic deconstruction.” Kaplan once believed that something called “amoral self-interest” should be the defining aspect of American foreign policy. 

After the Fall

Fall 2005 | Articles

What did the failure of an American client state ultimately mean, three decades on? Although the personnel and leaders of South Vietnam are today dismissed by the rulers of Vietnam as “puppets,” there were many in South Vietnam who resisted the Communists precisely because of their patriotism and their wish to lead lives free of Communist dogma. At the same time, the ranks of the South Vietnamese government, as well as its military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were thick with former French collaborators, gangsters, cowards, and buffoons. The insolvable corruption of South Vietnam was a problem throughout the entire course of the war. In this way, Nguyen Cao Ky, one of the war’s most fascinating characters, also serves as a perfect lens through which to approach the whole story.


A Polar Turn of Mind: Finding Peace and Quiet in the High Canadian Arctic

Summer 2005 | Essays

or most North Americans travel means moving sideways or, slightly more exotically, south. The former journey unwires one’s circadian rhythm while the latter equinoctially scrambles the night sky. What of going North, then? As it turns out, there remains quite a bit more “north” to North America than is usually imagined, and I stepped off the plane in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada’s largest and northernmost territory, with uncertain desires and little expectation. It was July. The ground was snowless, and though it was warmer than I had anticipated the air had a lettucey crispness.


Death Defier

Summer 2004 | Fiction

Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks. The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty, bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a damp crack.