Mr. Heartbreak returns

At 32, Dave Eggers is a hugely successful writer. Huge!

The paperback rights for Eggers’ first book, the 2001 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, sold for $1.4 million. The movie rights went for a reported $2 million! Critics practically wet their pants praising his writing. His was the book they were reading on Friends; it was, after all, the accessory every 20-something seemed to be carrying that season.

The time Eggers took an entire group of people by bus from an East Village reading to a bar in Newark is mythic. He had groupies! (Then there are the good works, which only complicate the image, including a $100,000 gift to a cancer-research institute — which must be the biggest charity gift from a writer since the previous record, a mysterious $30 donation to public radio back in 1994. Most recently, Eggers founded a writing center for kids in San Francisco, called 826 Valencia.) Short of sitting down next to Oprah at her book club, there is little attention Eggers and that first book didn’t receive.

So it’s been refreshing these past couple of weeks when I’ve talked excitedly about Eggers’ eminent arrival in Asheville and friends and acquaintances have received the news with polite, blank looks that gently convey “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” It’s felt a little like rushing around saying, “The deputy secretary of agriculture is coming! The deputy secretary of agriculture is coming!”

When I asked Eggers whether he agreed with writer David Foster Wallace’s assessment that being a hugely successful writer actually amounts to about the same fame accorded a local weatherman, Eggers paused in thought before looking up — his good eye, the purple one, deeply expressive.

Actually, I’ve never done an interview with Eggers (and in any case, I think his eyes are brown). Even though he recently published a second book, Eggers isn’t giving interviews anymore.

And that may be just as well. In the wake of the success of that first book, numerous profiles, interviews, clarifications of interviews and accounts of the author’s (sometimes colorful) exchanges with journalists have appeared. In them, more than one critic has observed that the author is thin-skinned, which seems to me an overestimation of the epidermis on display: Reading Eggers is enough to convince you that somewhere there’s a guy walking around with absolutely no skin whatsoever — not a stitch of protective membrane to keep the world out, or himself in. So what ends up spilled across the page are the entire contents of his personality, in all its maddening, brave, kind, brilliant, cantankerous, naive, aggrandizing, fierce glory.

That’s the beauty of Eggers — and also, you can’t help but feel, his burden to bear. He agitates people. He is the kind of guy at whom detractors take potshots, and who even well-wishers seem to think really needs a dog: His own strong opinions draw the strong opinions of others like a magnet.

Reading him you can feel Eggers practically vibrating off the page with an eagerness to be at the center of The Truth — some great, universal truth we can all identify and perhaps rope in before dinner — as well as his disdain for roadblocks. We all know what is the right thing to do; and the reasons that stop us from doing the right thing are crummy and dishonest and should make us feel ashamed is a shimmering subcurrent running through his work. I don’t know of another contemporary literary writer so urgently concerned with saving people.

If it continues like this, Eggers will earn a place in the long line of Great American Agitators: Gen X, meet your Thoreau. Thank goodness this agitator has a better sense of humor.

A Heartbreaking Work is a nonfiction account of the death of Eggers’ parents to cancer and how he came to be, at 21, a sort of surrogate parent to his young brother. Eggers flouted all the rules of traditional memoir, from the gauntlet-drop of the book’s title to such inclusions as “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” and an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” and the (accurate) self-appraisal that after page 108, the contents of the book are “kind of uneven.”

With the publication of his second book, You Shall Know Our Velocity, Eggers flouts all the rules of how a hugely successful author publishes his sophomore effort. Eschewing the major publishing houses and the assurance of a whopping advance, Eggers has chosen instead to publish through his own imprint, McSweeney’s Books. Initial run: 10,000 copies. (Compare this to the 200,000 hardcover copies now in print of his first book.)

The new book is only available through independent booksellers like Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe or McSweeney’s Web site (www.mcsweeneys.net, the online arm of Eggers’ literary journal, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which began publishing in 1999). No Amazon, no Barnes & Noble.

Like Eggers’ first book, Velocity gives us the adventures of two grieving Midwesterners out in the world. It’s just that this time, because it’s a novel, neither of the grieving Midwesterners happens to be Eggers. And the action is no longer limited to the continental U.S. In fact, it involves a seven-day trip around the world.

Imagine a three-musketeers-type trio of friends who’ve known each other since childhood. One of them dies in a senseless, freakish automobile accident, and suddenly, two is no longer company: Two is just lonesome. This is the emotional backdrop of Velocity.

The friend who has died is named Jack. The two remaining are Hand and Will. In keeping with his H-name, Hand is hammy and handsome. He’s the friend you’ve had forever, the one who won’t shut up, who knows a little about everything — he’s on the Internet a lot, this guy. He’s the one who seems so comfortable in his skin and comfortable with chicks that you’d hate him except he’s sometimes the only one who makes you feel comfortable, too. Hand outfits himself for the trip in swishy, synthetic, silverish pants and a T-shirt that reads “I Am Proud of My Black Heritage.” Needless to say, Hand is white. And blond.

Meanwhile, Will, our narrator, is wearing lots of scabs and bruises — his face has been mauled after a major ass-kicking at a storage facility in Oconomowoc, Wis., not far from Milwaukee, where the guys grew up. Will also happens to have a heart condition. And after spending a short amount of time with him, the reader may also diagnosis Will with a lung condition — something congenital like Salinger’s Glass family suffered, a malaise that makes it hard to breathe the air on this Earth.

An unexpected windfall of money has dropped into Will’s lap and he wants to unload it as soon as possible. (He uses the word “purge” — in fact, “purge,” “shame” and “guilt” crop up here with about the same frequency as they would in the chronicle of two bulimic Japanese felons abroad.) So together, Ham and Will do the only possible thing: They set off for Senegal, as the first of many stops in a seven-day trip, during which they’ll disperse the money — every last bit of it — to strangers.

Why Senegal? Because it was windy in Greenland, so no planes could land. And throwing themselves to the winds is exactly what Will and Hand do, as if by moving forward fast enough, and far enough, they can outrun the past — and land in some more hospitable future.

In a review of the novel in the New York Times, the formidable Michiko Kakutani took Velocity to task for sentences like this: “We were done the tire was new and we were worthy and we ate a Pizza Hut meal and felt at once shame and great joy with our pizza.” The sentence, Kakutani charges, reads like phony Hemingway. Be that as it may, it also reads phony for a more troubling reason: You can’t make me believe that two self-respecting Milwaukee kids, educated at a state school like UW-Lacrosse, ever sat in front of a piping-hot Pizza Hut pizza and felt shame. Disappointment in the quantity and quality of the cheese? Perhaps, but never shame. Swooning, fainting from emotional angst, second-guessing perfectly good pizza pies — these are all strictly East and West Coast activities.

I am only half-joking here. There is a dissonance between what we’ve been told is the trajectory of the characters’ lives and the actual quality of Will’s observations. Will has supposedly never been farther than Nevada before, yet he’s able to peg the quality of a Parisian acquaintance’s joke as “a European thing … at once decadent and loving and weary.” A right-on observation, but not one you pick up at a kegger in Lacrosse. (I feel qualified to comment opinionatedly on this as I grew up, like the book’s characters, within covet-inspiring radius of the Bong Recreation Area sign on Hwy. 94, outside Milwaukee.)

In passages throughout the novel, it feels as if the author is keeping uneasy faith between his own observations as a gypsying Midwesterner and the extremely winning, more homebound characters he’s created. Which is too bad, because there are many times when a solid dose of Wisconsin practicality would have done the book good, to help ground the very real pain and rage that floats through the pages in search of a place to roost. There’s no better temper for an excess of exquisiteness than a Packers game.

Yet calling Eggers’ style faux Hemingway seems wrong, too. Because the writing here is remarkable, clean and disciplined, in a way that feels earned. When it’s in pitch with the characters, it’s breathtaking:

“I turned on the TV. The State of the Union, a rebroadcast on cable. I pushed my ear into the pillow. The president had burst into the hall and everyone was so happy. They all seemed so genuinely mirthful, all of them. What is the president whispering to them? Most of the people just stand and clap, but some get the president whispering to them, something really great. These people, in their suits and ties, the women all wearing their bright, solid-color outfits, like a loosely distributed bunch of giant fruits and vegetables.”

The reader will likewise find a lot of sweet treats loosely distributed through Velocity like Cracker Jack prizes. In lieu of a dust jacket, the novel begins without preamble on the cover. Blank pages in the book’s middle recreate the airborne motion of a boat smacking across the water. And there are occasional illustrations to help clarify points of narrative: My favorite is a picture of a surprised-looking fellow driving a horse-drawn cart in Morocco.

In the past couple of years, McSweeney’s Books has published close to a dozen titles. If Willy Wonka had gone in for publishing instead of candy, the results wouldn’t be so different: There’s the same joyful exuberance to the enterprise; the same artisan’s devotion to the workmanship of the product; the same mysterious hermiting (as I remember, Wonka stopped doing interviews, too); the same sense that someone has doodled all over the business plan, and in lieu of holding focus groups, gone out for ice cream instead.

If you were among the first to order Neal Pollack’s Anthology of American Literature from McSweeney’s, you also received an autographed poster of the book’s author in the nude, the sensitive area shielded by an uncomfortable-looking cat. Meanwhile, author Lawrence Krauser hand-drew on the slipcovers of all 50,000 copies of his novel Lemon.

People who pre-ordered Velocity had to wait a little longer than expected for the arrival of their orders, because the book was held up in customs. Why? Because McSweeney’s Books publishes in Reykjavik, Iceland. Why? Because that’s the only printer in the world whose quality meets with McSweeney’s standards. Reykjavik!

And yet when you hold the book in your hand, it feels so wonderful: The amount of type on each page is just right — not too cramped, not too sprawling. Even the few typos are a pleasure. Because the book feels as if it were made by an old-fashioned publishing house, for the sheer joy of it. And these days, that may just be how Dave Eggers defines hugely successful.

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