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With his head in the clouds

A young Peace Corps worker drifts around the world, trying to find people to save him

By Ron Charles / June 15, 2004

In a typically wry passage of "Walden," Thoreau claims, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." It's a line that captures our ambivalent attitude about charity, what's now distilled to an extracurricular activity for high school students trying to improve the world - or their transcripts. Charity labors under the same denigration that ruined the word "pity," which we all know nobody wants. In these conservative times, anyone who hands out a meal is likely to be admonished that it's better to teach a man to fish, particularly if someone else does the teaching, preferably at a for-profit charter school.

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A debut novel by Robert Rosenberg explores the challenges of charity with refreshing good humor and insight. "This Is Not Civilization" follows a young Peace Corps worker named Jeff Hartig as he helps people on an Indian reservation in Arizona, in a village in the post-Soviet country of Kyrgyzstan, and in the earthquake devastation of Istanbul in 1999.

Rosenberg himself was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, he won a fellowship to work on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, and he taught in Istanbul during the earthquake. As you might expect, those wide experiences give the author an extraordinary store of detail to create the exotic places Jeff seeks out in his restless quest.

What's unexpected, though, is the way Rosenberg allows this autobiographical adventure to rotate away from his fictive persona. Other characters periodically move to the forefront, not as objects of Jeff's benevolence or paragons of primitive virtue, but as people just as earnest and noble and foolish as Jeff is.

The novel's richest scenes take place in a forgotten mountain village in Kyrgyzstan, where a father named Anarbek manages a communist-era cheese factory that produces no cheese. While the rest of the country stumbles toward privatization, a bureaucratic oversight keeps subsidy checks flowing from the capital. Anarbek knows they're living on borrowed time, but in this barren, mountainous village there is nothing else do to. "We're still making a profit!" he assures the workers who arrive each day to sit and chat.

Anarbek's home life is just as precarious. A hot-headed young man has attempted to marry his daughter, Nazira, through an old custom called wife stealing. When Nazira escapes her beau/abductor and flees back home, Anarbek faces the dilemma of turning her away in deference to their ancient ways or taking her back in an act of public humiliation.

News that an American teacher of English is coming to the village lifts everyone's spirits. They're hoping for someone like Madonna or Sharon Stone, but when Jeff appears sporting a straight set of teeth, they embrace him with the zealous hospitality that tradition demands. Indeed, Jeff barely survives their enthusiasm; nauseating meals and exhausting celebrations leave him desperate for a moment of privacy.