Return of the prodigal son

Eggers' bank-breaking work of traveling gringos

| January 30, 2003

While Dave Eggers’s new book doesn’t break our hearts or leave us staggering in quite the same way as did his first, You Shall Know Our Velocity is nonetheless a sprawling and energetic effort, showcasing, once again, Eggers’s talent and unmistakable voice. The story begins, well, right away—the opening words are printed on the cover, no dust jacket, spilling over onto the inside, flowing onto the first page, and so on—in a throwing off of protocol that reads as originality at best, and gimmicky marketing at worst. The no-introductions-necessary approach serves to assure Eggers fans, no doubt garnered after reading his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that this young hipster of an author hasn’t exhausted all his innovations yet.

Not that we ever doubted him. Through his work with McSweeney’s, a literary journal and Web site that he launched, as well as his latest venture, a San Francisco-based youth literacy program known as 826 Valencia, Eggers has proved over and over that innovation is his forte, and staying busy is his mania. But for enthusiasts of his literary talents, along with the young trendy crowd sporting moppy haircuts and thick-rimmed glasses, the fact that this busy guy has decided to write another book should come as an intense pleasure.

A pleasurable read Velocity certainly is. Will and Hand, twenty-something protagonists, best friends since childhood, have recently lost Jack, the third in their trio, to a freak truck accident. Already Eggers’s sophomore effort harks to a familiar theme, that of death and loss. The book opens a few months after Jack’s demise, as the two are planning to embark on a journey, certainly an allegorical escape as well a chance to get the hell out of Wisconsin and away from memories of their dead friend. Yet the two guys don’t bill their trip as such; Will has recently come across a lot of money, and they’ve decided that they want to travel around the globe in order to give it all away. And, by the way, they only have a week to do it.

Thus begins the frantic, rushed pace of the story, the boundless energy Eggers exhibits in keeping up with his characters’ active minds and mouths, and the wacky digressions and brilliant tangents that Eggers’ followers have come to expect from his writing. Eggers’ slick style certainly puts him in the running for spokesperson-of-a-generation. Yet to suggest that his style appeals only to MTV-influenced teenagers or hip young cynics well-versed in postmodernism is to greatly simplify his work. Eggers definitely has a style that sounds young and modern (one can smell his irony and self-effacement from miles away), but it’s layered with a sense of sincerity and philosophical ambition. He seems to honestly want to ask big questions, and to attempt to answer them too.

Both the strength and the weakness of Velocity lie in the fact that this book is its author’s break away from memoir and into fiction. With the freedom to abandon loyalty to the truth, Eggers disposes of some of his trademark self-effacement and knowing self-consciousness, that definite “style” of his. And to tell you the truth, it’s missed. Instead of finding innovative ways to describe a linear series of events or creative methods for hiding the painful reality of his life story, as he did in Heartbreaking, here Eggers relies more on the inner thoughts of Will and outward bursts of useless information from Hand to provide the book with wit, and on schemes such as printing the start of the story on the cover to provide the book with novelty. These efforts are usually witty and/or novel, to be sure, and the thoughts and comments from Will and Hand still retain the tangent-like and quirky forays of Eggers’s mind. Yet they don’t hide the almost simple plot, and Velocity often reads like a forthright tale of two friends lugging their heavy hearts and bursting wallets from Wisconsin to Senegal to Morocco to Estonia to Latvia.

All the same, Velocity’s characters are completely believable. The book’s strength is its perceptiveness, its depiction of could-be-real situations (well, if we all happened to have lots of unwanted cash hanging around and a dead buddy on our conscience) as seen through the eyes of realistically portrayed characters. Because Eggers’ own story was so unbelievable and so horrifying, the ploys and innovations he constructed within his first book kept it from sounding like actual life. His second work, ironically the fictional piece, has no such problem. It can sound as real as it likes.

Here Eggers has created two almost painfully accurate Gen X guys; guys who pepper most sentences with curses of varying connotation, and who spend a lot of time complaining about the inefficiency of airline representatives. Throughout their nearly meaningless journey, their slacker approach to travel and their misguided method of philanthropy, these two also stumble into periods of philosophizing and intense self-scrutiny. Whether they question their self-conscious reactions to money and privilege, or merely their discomfort at being Americans abroad, the big questions being raised by Eggers are unmistakable.

In this way Velocity feels real and perceptive. Will and Hand may whine, but so do most of the people I know. They may ask big questions and never find any answers, but that, too, sounds familiar. While Velocity may not be a heartbreaking work, it’s an honest one. Even if your friends don’t punctuate their sentences with clever tidbits as do these two, Velocity is still about as authentic as fiction gets.

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