Velocity of Dave
In the past 10 years, Dave Eggers has started two literary journals, a nonprofit writing center, a publishing company and a daily humor Web site, 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, certainly will change that. Ranging in setting from Tanzania to Ireland—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 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.
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.
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 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.
And here is where Eggers takes his writing to a whole new level. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fried Eggers’ grief over his parents’ death in a vat of irony. But these stories do not have their guards up. They are raw and unfiltered and have the quivering texture of lived experience. Couples make out awkwardly, hungrily and, once, a little too forcefully. They say inappropriate things.
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.
Following 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.