March 24, 2011
For Christopher Howard, perhaps life’s kindest gesture came from a Third World parasite.
A debilitating, intestine-twisting infection forced the Peace Corps volunteer to flee Mongolia for recovery back in the States. That change of plans set off an unmapped string of circumstances – jobs, classes, military – that Howard intertwined with steady fiction-writing.
From the Peoria Star:
After 14 years of scratching by, the native Peorian’s first novel will be published by a New York printing house. “Tea of Ulaanbaatar,” a trippy criticism of war with his Mongolian experiences as a background, comes out in May.
That’s rare air the 36-year-old is breathing, that of a published novelist – especially in these super-cautious bookbinding times. Yet Howard, always prone to calm understatement, allows only a light grin and quiet, “I was pleasantly surprised.”
He could be talking about his quirky life.
After graduating from Peoria Notre Dame High School, Howard attending the University of Missouri. In 1997 he graduated with a double-major in English and philosophy: two degrees with low-paying career possibilities.
Rather than grind out a meager paycheck, he decided to volunteer in a strange land.
“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 says.
His assignment: Mongolia. He learned the language, then trekked to the central-Asian nation to teach school. The idea: Mongolians with solid English skills would stand a better chance at employment.
Howard encountered crushing poverty. Mostly, he ate a weak soup of noodles and turnips. He was a lucky one, compared with the Mongolians.
“Someone who judges poverty by American poverty can’t understand,” he says. “We’re talking no food, with no chance of getting any food.”
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, decided to return to America.
After recovering, he decided to take a new course. He returned to Missouri and wrote for a couple of small papers. On the side he dabbled in fiction, getting published occasional in literary magazines.
After Sept. 11, 2001, he veered again, joining the Army. He 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.
After his two years there, he returned to central Illinois. In 2005, he earned a master’s degree in English from Illinois State University in Normal. Since then, he has been back in his hometown, renting a modest apartment in Central Peoria, writing fiction and teaching classes, eking out a writer’s existence.
“I’ve made a lifestyle choice I couldn’t drag a wife into,” he says with a smirk. “She would’ve left me by now.”
All along, though, Howard had Mongolia on his mind. Back then, he’d often would pass his free time by drinking teas, a pleasure in the capital of Ulaanbaatar since the era of Genghis Khan. As time moved forward, he thought about those teas as the United States and the counties 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 the character 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. He got an agent and quickly hit the publishing jackpot: Seven Stories Press, which issues works by the lofty likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren, snapped up the novel almost immediately.
The release date is May 1. The list price for the paperback is $14.95, but preorders ($8.09) are available via amazon.com. Early reviews have been highly positive: Publishers Weekly lauds Howard’s “tight and witty writing,” while the Library Journal calls the book “an accomplished novel with a keen sense of atmosphere and description.”
It’s 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 the folly of war. Meanwhile, his novella “Darkstar” – an apocalyptic tale involving a homeless anti-hero and an exotic dancer – has been selling well on Kindle.
Next up: a nearly completed novel called “Prince of the World,” in which a half-slave, half-Indian named LaBelle happens upon the Starved Rock Massacre.
“That’s my masterpiece,” he says with a simple smile of satisfaction. “I can die a little easier.”