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His velocity

Keeping up with Dave Eggers


In the past 10 years, Dave Eggers has started two literary journals, a nonprofit writing center, a publishing company and a daily humor website, not to mention a pirate-supply storefront in San Francisco: a Dickensian swirl of activity that might explain why it became easy to forget that Eggers is first and foremost a writer.

The publication of How We Are Hungry, his collection of 15 new stories, will certainly change that. Ranging in setting from Tanzania to Ireland, from Egypt to a long, lonely stretch of I-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 importing 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 examine the root cause of their desire to dispense with all that money.

How We Are Hungry comes out of a similar kind of anxiety about generosity. In “Another,” a man gets on a plane and flies to Egypt for a vacation shortly after the American government has told him it’s not safe to be there. He then spends the rest of 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 protagonist 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.”

Although this book shares many concerns with Velocity, it takes them a step further and makes them more intimate. As one reads deeper, Eggers makes a deft transition from global empathy—which can seem so theoretical, especially when the fighting is Over There—to relations between the sexes, which often feel agonizingly tangible and Right Here. 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.

Like Lorrie Moore in Birds of America, Eggers understands how movement from one place to the next can put us off-balance and make us kiss the blarney stone of our own neediness. In “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” a woman flies down to Costa Rica to figure out whether her friend Hand (who reappears from Velocity) is a lover or merely a pal. It’s a heart-breaking little story because, if you’re the kind of person who takes time seriously, it reminds you how many near misses you’ve experienced searching for The One. What do you do with all those moments, so indelibly remembered?

And here is where Eggers takes his writing to a whole new level. While A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fried Eggers’ grief over his parents’ death in a vat of irony—a necessary tic, no doubt, in de-sanctifying the memoir—these stories do not have their guards up. They are raw, unfiltered and have the quivering texture of lived experience. A sentence Eggers uses to describe surfing in the book might apply here: “Everyone was an amateur, everyone pretending at grace.”

Couples make out awkwardly, hungrily and, once, a little too forcefully. They say inappropriate things. In “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance,” a young man drives down to Bakersfield to visit his cousin, who has just attempted to kill himself by jumping off a hotel rooftop. He concludes his visit by shimmying up a tree next to his cousin’s hospital window and waving at him. He doesn’t know how else to tell him he cares.

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, a very happy dog and the ocean all have speaking parts in this collection.

It’s a shame it has taken me this long to mention how fun it is to read Eggers’ prose, even when he is twisting a knife in your heart. Reading his work you get the sense that he really likes words, that he might be thinking wheeeeeee! to himself as he types. For example, on her trip to Costa Rica, the heroine of “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water” laments that she did not get to go to Nicaragua. “Nicaragua sounded dangerous,” she thinks to herself. “It sounded like some kind of spider. There it goes, under the table—Nicaragua!”

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

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