• U.S.

Books: Dave Eggers Gets Real

4 minute read
Lev Grossman

Is Dave Eggers for real? it’s hard to tell sometimes. He declines most interviews. He is the proprietor of a mysterious store in Brooklyn that sells, among other things, cast-pewter bird’s feet and jars of dirt. He once staged the death of TV actor Adam Rich, former star of Eight Is Enough, as a hoax.

Then again, he is also the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, one of the best memoirs of the past decade, which established him as a writer of the first rank. At 32, Eggers is the yeti of American letters–powerful, mysterious, mischievous but generally believed to be benevolent. Now the yeti has emerged from the wilderness with a new book, a first novel called You Shall Know Our Velocity (McSweeney’s Books; 371 pages) that tells the story of two friends who travel around the world giving away money. It may finally settle the question, Dave Eggers, man or myth?

Eggers has been reluctant to resolve it himself. Even before the success of Heartbreaking Work, a moving and fiercely intelligent account of taking care of his younger brother after the death of their parents, Eggers was a literary Johnny Appleseed who put substantial amounts of his own money into founding the literary journal McSweeney’s and starting a publishing imprint, McSweeney’s Books. Earlier this year he established 826 Valencia, a non-profit center in San Francisco where students can go for tutoring in writing. At the same time he has slipped into self-imposed obscurity, avoiding the press–he returned Time’s phone calls but asked not to be quoted–and staging his readings as cryptic, Andy Kaufman–style happenings. And then there’s his jars-of-dirt store. It could just be clever marketing–this kind of behavior discourages media attention the way napalm discourages fire–but even Velocity is being brought out coyly, in an initial printing of a mere 10,000 copies, available only at alternative bookstores. Is Eggers–not to put too fine a point on it–messing with us?

These and other questions are answered in You Shall Know Our Velocity. Like Heartbreaking Work, it is a book about mourning, but it eschews any of the metafictional skylarking of the earlier book; Eggers is through kidding around. Our heroes are Will and Hand, two twentynothing layabouts from Wisconsin who decide to fly around the world for a week, handing out money to strangers. They recently lost their friend Jack in a car accident, and in an oblique way not even they really understand, the trip is an attempt to deal with that loss, as well as with a more generalized sense of aimlessness and anger. “I can’t be alone with my head, Hand,” says Will, who narrates the book. “There was a time when I wanted and loved time alone with my mind. Now I dread it.”

Will and Hand ricochet from country tocountry in picaresque fashion, Senegal to Morocco to Estonia, drinking, bickering, rarely sleeping, thrusting wads of cash at startled strangers, staying just ahead of the boredom and the crying jags that threaten to crest over them like a wave–but just behind the sense of happiness and belonging they’re sure awaits them in the next strip bar or hotel lobby. Eggers’ strengths as a writer are real: his funny, pitch-perfect dialogue; the way his prose delicately captures the bumblebee blundering of Will’s thoughts (he compares the workings of his brain to “a toddler in a room full of new guests”); and the stream-water clarity of his descriptions (with the sentence “His socks were white and Van Horned up around his calves,” a reference to chronically uncool NBA player Keith Van Horn, Eggers may have enriched the English language by a verb). At their best, Will and Hand, like Vladimir and Estragon, have genuine existential pathos; at their worst they’re a little jejune, a pair of Holden Caulfields railing at the phonies. Critics have tarred Eggers with the brush of irony, and You Shall Know Our Velocity seems to be his attempt to cleanse himself in the turpentine of earnestness. “When we pass by another person without telling them we love them,” Will thinks, “it’s cruel and wrong and we all know this.” Do we?

But there’s genius here, and if it occasionally staggers, the book deserves our forgiveness and our respect, as does Eggers himself. After all, who is doing more, single-handedly and single-mindedly, for American writing? If his reclusive habits only fan the flames of media interest, so what? He should be left alone to go about his business and to do good works, of which You Shall Know Our Velocity is unquestionably one. And we will leave him alone. Very soon. Any minute now.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com