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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

(Page 2 of 2)

This is risky comedy that in less deft hands would clunk into condescension, but Rosenberg keeps it aloft with a sweet sense of appreciation. The meals and rituals and costumes he describes are unimaginably foreign, but the earnestness and pride he captures in these people ennoble them.

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"Adrift on waves of good intentions," Jeff has come to Kyrgyzstan after a disappointing retreat from an Apache reservation in Arizona, where he tried to establish a youth center. Ironically, halfway around the world, in this Central Asian village impossibly different from the native American settlement he left behind, Jeff finds the old complications of human nature essentially unchanged: The demands of modern business mesh poorly with ancient traditions; even desperate people are reluctant to give up their meager security for the slim chance of future prosperity.

As he tries to get Anarbek to move his factory beyond the cheesemaking charade, Jeff finds himself falling into the same ruse, claiming his students are making good progress. Only Anarbek's disgraced daughter Nazira, who also teaches English, seems to realize what's really happening, but she's too entranced by Jeff to object.

Two years later, when Jeff leaves their village, Nazira knows she must presume nothing about his devotion to her, but his genuine goodness is so beguiling that she can't resist fanning a little flame of hope in her otherwise realistic heart.

In the novel's final section, Rosenberg draws these characters to Turkey with a clever, almost comical, move that levels the playing field, forcing each of them to be the visiting foreigner. The ancient streets of Istanbul, studded with marks of modernity, provide a perfect setting for Anarbek, Jeff, and one of his Apache students from Arizona to consider the responsibilities that root them to the past.

Rosenberg's greatest challenge is moving between the large and small scales that his story demands. He has trouble conveying the passage of time, creating that accumulation of physical and mental detail that makes us believe characters have experienced more than we've been shown. And he's far better at capturing intimate gatherings like the Kyrgyz birthday party high in the mountains than panoramic scenes like the national celebration that draws 50,000 people.

But what a generous, big-hearted book this is, perceptive enough to catch the goodness in all these well- intentioned people. Each of them endures the sting of inadequacy, but they're all tethered to a sense of compassion that snaps them back from despair. Yes, the incurably charitable are hungering for their own salvation in the act of feeding others, but that cynical insight, Rosenberg argues, mustn't lead us to scorn the whole enterprise. In an era that gave us the term "compassion fatigue," his novel is a gentle rousing by someone who understands the complicated rewards of caring.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.