By turns tragic, hysterical and mordantly self-aware, Dave Eggers' sprawling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, did more than just exorcise the author's demons of unresolved grief for his late parents. It also turned the young writer into that rare phenomenon—the literary celebrity. As readers responded in droves to the bitingly funny yet moving account detailing Eggers' loss of both mother and father to cancer within five weeks of each other, his appearances became must-see events. These public readings, in fact, became nearly as famous as the memoir itself, often devolving into bizarre "happenings," with music, audience participation and lectures on Native Americans or fire safety delivered without explanation—all of which was in keeping with a book whose preface included "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book" and "Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors." By the time A Heartbreaking Work was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, Eggers, founder of the proudly outsider-lit website and journal McSweeney's, was a hot commodity; publishing experts believed he would write his own lucrative ticket.
And yet when Eggers finally published his long-awaited debut novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, in September, he released it in a first-edition run of 10,000 copies. That's not even enough to qualify as a best seller, were he to sell them all in the first week. But it seems the reportedly somewhat difficult and sensitive author found sudden fame and fortune unwelcome. He fired his literary agent and publicly outed those in the press who he felt were criticizing him unfairly, even making public an e-mail exchange with a New York Times reporter whom he felt showed false pretense in soliciting an interview. Now, in an industry-defying move, Eggers' latest has been self-published through his own small McSweeney's Books imprint, printed in Reykjavik and housed in a Boston warehouse; it's available only through McSweeney's online and selected independent bookstores nationwide. No Borders, no Barnes & Noble, no Amazon.com (although it turns out that Amazon is indeed selling the book in limited quantities—for an astounding $49.50 per copy).
Another stunt? Perhaps. But none of it matters if the book isn't any good.
But it is. A road novel of sorts, Velocity is actually quite similar to A Heartbreaking Work, as it involves coping with death and the self-healing one finds through adventure and travel. Will, the narrator, and Hand are two Wisconsin 27-year-olds who have just lost their close friend Jack in an auto accident. Will is emotionally fragile. Partly to escape, the two set off on a journey to impoverished countries with the vague intention of giving away $32,000, the product of a windfall that Will feels guilty about having received—perhaps a parallel to Eggers' own apparent queasiness with newfound wealth.
The author hasn't let up on his talent for incisive prose or dialogue. This time, however, the structure of the book is largely free of pranks and ironic set-ups. In fact, the first lines, informing readers that Will does not survive long after the story's telling, appear on the cover itself, and the segue to Page 1 is seamless. There isn't even room for the Library of Congress entry before we are under way, with Will and Hand devising their weeklong philanthropic excursion to the Third World.
Their plans go quickly awry, however, as bad weather, visa restrictions and ever-changing airport schedules reroute them first to Senegal, then Morocco and finally Estonia. Their original destinations of Greenland, Mongolia, Rwanda and Cairo are one by one crossed off the itinerary. Still, Will and Hand remain unfazed by logistical hurdles; their vigilante relief efforts have nothing to do with any well-researched destination, and one country is as good as the next. As their plane descends into Dakar, the two reveal their geography-challenged mindset: "We had pictured Senegal green but this was tan. 'West Africa I guess is tan,' [Hand] said. 'I really figured on green for Senegal.'"
The real thrill of Velocity arrives when our heroes touch down in Africa and begin to encounter—and subsequently reward—mostly bewildered locals. With no detailed plan on how to redistribute their wealth, Will and Hand devise a variety of schemes—taking block-long cab rides and tipping $100 each time; paying $120 for cheap keepsakes after bartering up from $3; taping pouches of money to the stomachs of wandering donkeys with a note attached: "HERE I AM! ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE!" They also give money to a young, Bulls-jersey-wearing Senegalese boy because he plays basketball with them, but they refuse money to his talkative brother, Pierre, who seems too expectant. As the more sarcastic Hand explains in smart-aleck pidgin English, "You know why . . . we gave to your brother 300 of the dollars American? Because he didn't ask for it. You, you are crass—you know of this word, crass?—so no money you have coming."
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In what seems to be a sly critique of U.S. intervention abroad, Eggers allows for several characters to cry foul along the way, including Will's mother, who finds the boys' approach condescending, and a prostitute in Latvia, who tells them, "You're going about rewarding what? Good manners? That's about control." Even Will begins to concede how unfair the doomed mission might be. When Hand spills soda on a woman while fishing for $300 to give her, Will thinks, "Maybe we couldn't help but make a mess everywhere we went."
As Hand goes on to kneel and wash the woman's sticky feet Last Supper-style, the symbolism becomes heavy-handed. Ditto the shanty-styled hotels with names like Temptation and the predictable late-night trips to strip bars with the same savior-like women always on duty. Nonetheless, these encounters are all ultimately touching in a different way. For Will especially, the trip is just as much about reconnecting with other humans and renewing his lease on life without Jack. And to whom are you going to give your money at 2 a.m. anyhow? "They're awake and we're awake," he reasons.
Ultimately, it's in moments like these, showing Will's slow descent toward a tearful breaking point, and in the gripping passages near the end that Eggers shines. He truly is a master on the subject of grief—and the anger and confusion it leaves behind. Will's darkly vivid and near-violent railing at God, promising vengeance for Jack's death, is reminiscent of the climactic emotional cloudburst in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here, though, after the breakdown subsides, Will has transcended his zombie-like state of repressed guilt and pain and reclaimed his existence. As the novel concludes, you are shocked to close the book and reread those opening lines on the cover—to remind yourself that, though Will has rediscovered life, he has only two months of it left. By then, you'd almost forgotten.
YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY BY DAVE EGGERS; MCSWEENEY'S BOOKS (WWW.MCSWEENEYS.NET). HARDCOVER, 376 PAGES, $20.