2006_10_arts_eggers.jpgIt’s fair to assume a certain amount of healthy caution in approaching Dave Eggers’ new oeuvre. It is, after all, coated in a thin outer layer of the meta-tastic postmodernism for which Eggers is (in?)famous. Who else would you expect to produce a novel entitled What Is the What: An Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, A Novel by Dave Eggers?

So, that healthy dose of skepticism is well-founded. Eggers’ foray into the book world was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a self-referential brick of inside jokes, false modesty, and bizarre footnoting. He followed with You Shall Know Our Velocity!, a clumsy, earnest and half-successful attempt at a novel whose merits were thwarted mid-stream by Eggers’ apparently maniacal inability to stop making himself the central character of the world.

There is honest unabashed good in Eggers. His non-profit 826 Valencia and his surprisingly well-turned-out efforts with McSweeney’s various publishing enterprises speak to a more balanced, genuine man beneath all that meta-hype.

In that same unassuming way, What Is the What is remarkable. The novelized autobiography – for that is what we must call it – tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, who traveled without his family on foot from his terrorized village of Marial Bai to the Pinyudo camp in Ethiopia, and then to Kakuma, in northern Kenya. He spent 15 years in the camps, much longer than he ever spent in his native Sudan. He walked hundreds of dangerous miles, becoming almost chillingly accustomed to seeing boys his age sitting down to die. Valentino was resettled in the U.S. in 2001, and Eggers layers his story in Sudan and the camps with a day-long narrative of Deng being robbed in his own Atlanta apartment.

The story is brilliantly told by Eggers. And it’s done so without gussied nonsense. In face, one forgets it’s Eggers writing for most of the time, so true and unfettered is Valentino’s story. Everything belongs to Valentino’s Sudan, especially the earthy imagery and descriptiveness so native to the stories of Africa. There are even the subtleties of learned English in the telling – very little contraction use, poetically longer sentences (“There was tall grass on the bank of the river,”) instead of a native English-speaker’s brisk economy. It sounds, quite literally, translated from Valentino’s native Dinka, which lends a huge heaping of stylistic rhythm to his story.

And it’s truly heart-breaking – it encapsulates the very word. When the refugees were no longer welcome at the Ethiopian camp of Pinyudo, they were simply chased back across the Gilo river into merciless Sudan, leaving thousands dead:

“Women dropped babies in the river. Boys who could not swim simply drowned. A woman fleeing would be moving one minute, there would be a hail of bullets or a mortar’s plume, then she would be still, floating downstream. Some of the dead were then eaten by crocodiles. The river ran in many colors that day, green and white, black and brown and red.”

It is the relentless, rapid-fire narrative of traumatized, each event more horrible than the last, each told with the flat unembellished delivery of having lived it.

But there is the other side to the story, and as a novel, it plays its part almost mercenarily: Eggers balances Valentino’s story in the Sudan with his present-day robbery. For each person Valentino encounters – the thieves themselves, the ER attendant, his co-workers the next day – he tells part of the story. It’s here that we catch a glimpse of the novelist behind this march of history. In some cases, this works well. Valentino talks about being a young boy in the camps to the adolescent in charge of watching him trussed on the floor; as he waits for someone to hear his abandoned pleas, he talks to his Christian neighbors about the slavery in Sudan. But towards the end, the gimmick gets a little stretched and forced. Valentino’s robbery in Atlanta and the relative safety of this trauma is used well, contrasting with his life in Africa, but it has a limit and Eggers does push it there.

But for that to be the only snag in this immaculately woven tapestry is a thing indeed – for any storyteller, much less one so accustomed to his own spotlight glare. It is Deng, not Eggers, whose story you come to hear, and it is Deng himself who shines through with his wit and his honesty and survival. But what praise is left over belongs squarely to Eggers, who has earned it. It is Deng’s story, but surprisingly, it is Eggers who has the grace and talent to tell it so well.