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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A Kerouac for this generation

Eggers explores travel, morality, connections

Posted By on Wed, Oct 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM

In the past 10 years, Dave Eggers has given birth to two literary journals, a nonprofit writing center, a publishing company and a daily humor Web site, as well as a pirate costume supply store in San Francisco. The Dickensian swirl of activity might explain why it’s become easy to forget that Eggers is foremost a writer.

The publication of How We Are Hungry, Eggers’ collection of 15 new stories, will certainly change that. Ranging in setting from Tanzania to Ireland, and from Egypt to a long, lonely stretch of Interstate 5, these tales reinvigorate that staid old form (the short story) with a jittery sense of adventure. All of Eggers’ characters are seekers; most of them are confused about what exactly they’re seeking.

In this sense, Eggers is beginning to resemble this generation’s Jack Kerouac. He adores motion, but it’s impossible for him to write about movement without examining its moral component. How do Americans travel without exporting the injustice of our wealth to other regions? It’s a question Eggers pondered in his debut novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, the tale of two young men trying to give away $32,000 in a week. Their cakewalk turns confusing when they begin to look at the root cause of their desire to dispense with all that money.

How We Are Hungry comes out of a similar anxiety. In “Another,” a man gets on a plane and flies to Egypt for vacation shortly after the American government has told him the country’s not safe. He spends the trip touring the country on a horse, taking what seems to be a ritualistic pounding in the saddle.

“I needed to prove to this Egyptian lunatic that I could ride with him,” the character says, describing his attempt to keep up with his guide. “That I could be punished, that I expected the punishment and could withstand it.”

What really seems to irk Eggers is that what one calls generosity in this country is considered empathy in other parts of the world. One of the collection’s most memorable pieces — and also its shortest — riffs on the way a terrible event from across the globe can reach down the cable box and punch you in the chest.

The title of the story says it all: “What it Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and then Mutilates Him in the Dust.”

As one reads deeper, Eggers makes a deft transition to relations between the sexes, which often feel agonizingly tangible. Three of the book’s best stories concern men and women reaching across the table to talk to one another and failing to connect. One of them takes place in Ireland, another in Costa Rica, the third in Tanzania.

In “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” a woman flies to Costa Rica to figure out whether her friend Hand (who reappears from Velocity) is a lover or merely a friend. It’s a heartbreaking little story because, if you’re the kind of person who takes time seriously, it reminds you of the near misses you have when searching for The One. What do you do with all those moments, so indelibly remembered?

While A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fried Eggers’ grief over his parents’ deaths in a vat of irony — a necessary tick, no doubt, in desanctifying the memoir — these stories do not have their guard up. They are raw, unfiltered and have the same quivering texture of lived experience.

Couples make out awkwardly, hungrily, and, once, a little too forcefully.

The challenge of connection — be it across nations, across sexes, across families or, in some cases, across species — animates Eggers to do his best writing. God, clouds, horses, sheep, a very happy dog and the ocean all have speaking parts in this collection.

And Eggers’ prose is fun to read, even when he is twisting a knife in your heart. You get the sense that he really likes words. For example, in “The Only Meaning of Oil-Wet Water,” the heroine laments that she went to Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua.

“Nicaragua sounded dangerous,” she thinks to herself. “It sounded like some kind of spider. There it goes, under the table — Nicaragua!”

Following Eggers’ talent as it tap dances across continents and genres is like watching a spider walk sideways up a wall. He does things that should be impossible, and he does them gracefully. All the while, his web gets bigger and bigger.

John Freeman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to


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