From the Boston Globe, June 12, 2011:

Toughest job you’ll never love

by Adam Langer Globe Correspondent

(Luci Gutierrez for The Boston Globe)

For the past 50 years, the Peace Corps has provided fertile material for a roster of impressive alumni, who include such authors as Kent Haruf, Bob Shacochis, and Paul Theroux. But I wouldn’t expect to see the name Christopher R. Howard, author of “Tea of Ulaanbaatar,” on a Peace Corps recruitment brochure any time soon. Using his brief stint as a volunteer in Mongolia during the late 1990s as his jumping-off point, Howard has produced a debut novel that won’t attract many socially conscious do-gooders to the Corps, but could well appeal to marginally employed slackers seeking to indulge in sex tourism and drug abuse.

The Mongolia of [Christopher] Howard’s novel is a memorably bleak, fetid, and sinister place, a likely contender for the world’s least inviting capital on an episode of “Globe Trekker.” Child prostitution is rampant; the stink of rotting sewage is palpable; diseases run the gamut from gonorrhea to bubonic plague. The novel’s hero (the term is used loosely here) is Warren, an obsessive-compulsive graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism program who volunteered for the Corps after failing to find a decent job in the States and growing weary of sleeping on his mom’s couch.

Warren’s ostensible responsibility is to teach English at the State Foreign Language Institute in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, but the reader doesn’t see him doing much teaching. Warren seems to pass most of his time boozing with fellow ex-pats, wooing “native girls,” pining away for the girlfriend he left back home, sparring with Samantha, the Peace Corps medical officer who seems convinced that Warren is on drugs, and washing his hands. “On a good day, he ends up washing his hands twenty times.”

Warren’s solipsism and neuroses can be off-putting, and so can his sexism - at times, it’s hard to distinguish among the women he describes, save for the medical officer Samantha, whose physical appearance is ridiculed in particularly misogynistic fashion. But Howard’s portrayal of Warren’s loneliness, alienation, and cynicism feels honest and convincing. And so do his insightful and often-funny observations of the arguments and rivalries that emerge among the volunteers.

But then, near the halfway point of his novel, Howard introduces something troubling and problematic - a plot. Warren discovers the pleasures of tsus, a hallucinogenic, addictive, blood-red tea that affects its users in a manner that seems to combine the best of a tab of Timothy Leary’s LSD, a bite of Marcel Proust’s madeleine, and a delicacy from the “Valley of the Schmoon” in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner.” To Warren, it tastes like “[t]he perfect candy that begins to dissolve the second it hits your tongue and never tastes as good when you’re an adult.” And as Warren inevitably succumbs to the temptations of tsus and to the freedom from loneliness it affords, the novel ceases to be merely an ably told story of one disaffected American’s alienation and enters phantasmagorical, Robert Stone fever-dream territory; Warren’s weakness for tsus ultimately puts him in contact with members of the dangerous Mongolian underworld who enlist him to distribute the drug in the West.

One can understand Howard’s temptation to introduce this trippy crime plot, both to heighten suspense and to address issues relevant to First World exploitation of the Third as well as the hypocrisy of purportedly idealistic Peace Corps volunteers. But the author’s execution here is only sporadically successful, suggesting the work of a talented director of modest, character-driven, indie films now directing his first big-budget action adventure. As the plot devolves into extreme but oddly unaffecting violence, the characters’ reactions to the bloodshed can seem so detached that the reader may well wonder whether events are actually happening or whether Warren, in his drug-addled state, is only imagining them. This may be Howard’s intention, to liken the state of the alienated traveler to that of a drug addict whose feelings have been so deadened that he can no longer discern reality from fantasy, but the confusion that Howard engenders is more frustrating than intriguing.

This is a shame because, at his best, Howard can be a truly hypnotic writer, one who achieves a lot more when he tries to accomplish a lot less. As it stands, the author’s debut leaves the reader thirsty for his next work. After Howard left the Peace Corps, he served in the US Army. Sounds like good material for a novel, though after reading “Tea of Ulaanbaatar,” members of the Army might think otherwise.

Adam Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.” He can reached at Adam@AdamLanger.com.