Joe and Azat by Jesse Lonergan
“Turkmenistan! It was a strange place,” begins Jesse Lonergan‘s graphic travelogue based on his own experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in the central Asian former republic of the Soviet Union. Lonergan’s alter-ego is “Joe” – as in average Joe Schmoe? – a bewildered American adjusting to the ubiquity of Turkmenbashy (Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov whose totaliarian regime ended when he died in 2006), unexpected eccentric cultural exchanges with the local, and the magical power of necessary bribes.
Joe’s best guide is local Azat, “the computer expert at the education department” – never mind that the entire department has but one computer. Azat, “the greatest dreamer [Joe] ever met” is also his best friend in Turkmenistan. Azat makes sure Joe gets his stolen passport back, tastes the best cooking (including his mother’s manty), meets a few of the local girls (at least one of whom Joe should marry), and enjoys every wedding with or without an invitation. In return, Joe puts up with Azat’s bully-of-an-older brother, listens to Azat’s nonsensical schemes to get rich, commiserates with Azat’s yearning for a girl he can’t have, and patiently tries to answer one absurd question after another.
Lonergan covers two years in a minimal hundred pages. “[A]t he end of my service I was still just a visitor,” Joe thinks, but doesn’t say to Azat. “I was just passing through … Passing through slowly but still just passing through.” In spite of Azat’s hope that their children might someday be best friends, Joe just wants to go home: “I’d always be returning to America.” But when in Turkemenistan … you’ll smile, chuckle, cringe, and roll your eyes plenty as you follow Joe and Azat through their adventures – from the mundane to the near-impossible.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult