As the minutes passed, the recycled air in the fuselage became like old breath. The planeload of Americans shot nervous looks at each other. Pinpricks of sweat forming on skin, cool but quickly warming. Charlotte joked that they had been abandoned, left to suffocate on the tarmac as a message to all foreigners.
They crowded around the windows to look at their new home. The skyline was made of Soviet-built apartment compounds, sooty smokestacks. They saw a man from the ground crew idling on the tarmac. The man looked up, saw their faces pressed against the portholes. They slapped the glass and called to him. He smiled, revealing rotten teeth, but made no move to assist.
The temperature soared.
SO BEGINS CHRISTOPHER HOWARD’S debut — and Peace Corps —novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar: the story of disaffected Peace Corps Volunteer Warren, who flees life in late-capitalist America to find himself stationed in the post-Soviet industrial hell of urban Mongolia. As the American presence crumbles, Warren seeks escape in tsus, the mysterious “blood tea” that may be the final revenge of the defeated Khans — or that may be only a powerful hallucinogen operating on an uneasy mind — as a phantasmagoria of violence slowly envelops him.
According to the publisher Seven Stories Press: “With prose that combines Benjamin Kunkel’s satiric bite, William Burroughs’s dark historical reimagining, and a lush literary beauty all his own, Christopher Howard in Tea of Ulaanbaatar unfolds a story of expatriate angst, the dark side of globalization, and middle-class nightmares — and announces himself as one of the most inventive and ambitious of the new generation of American novelists.”
For Christopher Howard, the Peace Corps was a brief experience. A debilitating, intestine-twisting infection forced him out of Mongolia to recover in the States. That change of plans set off an unmapped string of circumstances — jobs, classes, military. During all of this Howard kept writing. And now, after 14 years of scratching by, Tea of Ulaanbaatar, a trippy criticism of war with his Mongolian experiences as a background, comes out in May.
Here, briefly, is his history. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1997, with a double-major in English and philosophy, he joined the Peace Corps. “At the time, I was a true believer in the Peace Corps: Travel overseas, teach people to read and make the world a better place,” he told his home town newspaper recently. He was assigned to Mongolia.
Several months in, via contaminated water or food he contracted giardiasis, or beaver fever, caused by a single-cell organism. Diarrhea results, along with fever, cramps and vomiting that can waylay some victims for weeks. Howard, struck with a severe case terminated early, and, after recovering, he joined the Army and was assigned to Fort Lewis in Washington State, where he tested mechanized armored-personnel carriers: In essence, he worked with remote-control vehicles worth $3 million each, a job he thoroughly enjoyed.
Finishing his tour, he returned to central Illinois and by 2005 earned a master’s degree in English from Illinois State University in Normal. Since then, he has been back in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, renting a small apartment, teaching and writing.
Though all of this, Mongolia has always been on his mind. At his site, he would often pass his free time by drinking teas, a pleasure in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, and back home, he thought about those teas as the United States became enmeshed in this war and that.
“In our times, especially, they’re amorphous, make-no-sense wars of aggression,” he says. “. . . man is compelled to war against this brother, time and time and time again, for the stupidest reasons.”
As a parallel, Howard mentally created tsus, a blood-red Mongolian tea with hallucinogenic properties. But unlike LSD, it prompts warlike desires.
“The thing is, everyone has the same vision of the apocalypse,” Howard says. “They know war is coming, but they do (the drug) anyway.”
Armed with that metaphor, Howard sketched out a character he named Warren. The two share some background, but otherwise diverge. Warren goes off on a delusional spree of moral decay while entranced by tsus.
After infinite revisions, Howard finished the book a little over a year ago, got an agent and a publisher, Seven Stories Press, that also publishes writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren.
This is not his first taste of success. In 2008, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in fiction for “How to Make Millions in the Oil Market,” in which an American solider-turned mercenary ruminates on the folly of war. Meanwhile, his novella Darkstar — an apocalyptic tale involving a homeless anti-hero and an exotic dancer — has been selling on Kindle.
And he is almost finished writing another novel, Prince of the World, in which a half-slave, half-Indian named LaBelle happens upon the Starved Rock Massacre.