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.
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.
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.
"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.