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Tea of Ulaanbaatar
By Christopher R. Howard
Seven Stories Press
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I recently read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and I was pretty disappointed. It felt like paint-by-numbers noveling: take a fucked-up family, set them up in an "exotic" (to us Americans, anyway) culture and watch them deconstruct, filling out the plot with a quirky thing to tie it all together. In some ways, this description could also be used--very superficially--to describe Tea of Ulaanbaatar. But let me break it down for you, so you can see why one book was boring and the other was spectacular.
Fucked-up family: In Ukrainian, we have two embittered middle-aged sisters who have to work together to save their near-senile father from the much younger woman who is trying to seduce him. In Ulaanbaatar, we have a group of American Peace Corps volunteers dropped into the middle of a crazy awful city, screwing each other and screwing each other over, trying to navigate a completely foreign world with little help.
"Exotic" culture: In Ukrainian, the family now lives in England, but we have lots of historical flashbacks to their time they spent in-country, surviving brutality and death camps and poverty and terror. In Ulaanbaatar we have both Mongolia now--a devastated victim of Soviet rule and withdrawal, desperately trying to claw its way into the twentieth century--and Mongolia then, with flashback snippets of marauding hordes overtaking everything in their path.
[Quick sidenote regarding the book cover: I'm sorry Seven Stories decided to make it look so old-timey. They really should have had that ancient warrior tapestry being shredded, to reveal a festering and fucked up shady modern metropolis beneath it. Why does no one come to me for advice?]
Anyway. Quirky thing: In Ukrainian, Dad is writing a history of tractors. In Ulaanbaatar, there are recipes for tea--Moroccan Mint, Earl Grey, Tencha, oh, and Tsus, the Blood Tea, which is actually a drug more powerful than anything the Western world has ever seen.
Can you see how this is kind of a no-brainer? Bitchy sisters and a senile tractor-phile vs. nighclubs and drugs and intrigue and sex and dust storms and beggar-children and Mongoloid (in both senses) oracles and a horrifying Peace Corps doctor and more sex and more drugs and drinking and murder and arctic steppes and an OCD narrator and whores and guns and even more drugs... I guess you get the idea. Tea of Ulaanbaatar is just clearly my kind of fucking book.
And really, I didn't need to work so hard to prop this book up by comparing it to a mediocre one; it totally stands on its own. It's just drenched in another world: Christopher Howard does an amazing job of painting incredible scenes, sparsely yet wholly describing a gross, decrepit nightclub and an annihilating dust storm over the Gobi Dessert with equal aplomb. And the characters! Good lord, these are fully drawn people, from the nubile Mongol temptress to the gossipy American mother hen, from the Indian girlfriend our "hero" left back home to the hero himself--complicated, messed up, scrutable and lonely and real.
And it could just have been a story about that, about messy people in a messy landscape doing messy, messy things, and it would have been a solid read. But then when the drugs come in the whole thing just tilts, incredibly, catapulting itself to a whole other level of shuddering horror, which obviously I'm not going to tell you about because you're going to click over to Seven Stories right now and reserve yourself a copy. It's out in two weeks. Get it. Unless you prefer tractors to drugs, of course, in which case, why are you listening to me anyway?
Out of 10: 9