June 15, 2011
What the Boston Globe has to say about Christopher R. Howard’s debut novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar:
The Mongolia of 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.