Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dave Eggers: What is the What (2006); Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006) Two of the better novels I read in 2008 are two of the best books of 2006. So much for the value of my end-of-the-year lists. What is the What is self-described as a novel. Yet it is not a work of fiction. In fact, it is the true-to-life story of a man named Valentino Achak Deng as interpreted by Dave Eggers. The book includes a preface by Mr. Deng explaining the logic for calling the book a novel. If What is the What is a novel, it is journalistic fiction in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Unlike Capote’s difficult to love protagonist, Egger’s narrator/interviewee is not a perpetrator but a victim, an innocent and brave boy who grows into a remarkably honest and true, still somehow innocent man. He had this reader’s complete attention and love by page two. Achak is one of “the lost boys of Sudan”, a group of young refugees of the Sudanese civil war that started in the 1980s. He was one of thousands of boys forced to abandon their villages and seek safety in Ethiopia and later Kenya, in the middle of a terrible, genocidal war. Achak was about eight when he is first caught up in this maelstrom of violence, the cause of which he knew nothing. The reader enters Achak’s story near its end. The boy has grown up in refugee camps. As a young man he finally makes it to the comparative security of the United States and an apartment in Atlanta. Yet, the man is again faced with a violent attack, he cannot understand. Eggers and Deng use this later incident to take the reader back into the earlier events, and throughout the narrative the two stories are woven together with great effect. The Road, as its name suggests is another tale of a journey. Likewise, it is the story of violence, war and an innocent boy trying to find a safe haven in a world turned upside down. Unlike Eggers’ book, let us hope The Road is fiction, through and through, because seldom has any author told a more miserable story of a world without hope. McCarthy has always been a downbeat stylist, but with this recent work he achieves new lows. Detractors have described The Road as a break with his earlier work, as a work stripped of the dark beauty of Blood Meridian. But most readers seem to agree, The Road is one of Cormac McCarthy’s great works. This stark, relentless tale is amongst the author’s best.