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Speed Freaks

Dave Eggers’ first fiction, You Shall Know Our Velocity (Y.S.K.O.V.), is aptly titled. There is an excitement to the novel -- a speed -- that you will not find outside of a Tom Clancy thriller. Eggers seems so eager to get (us) into this book, its first 100 or so words appear on the cover and continue onto the front endpapers. It begins with an ending: “Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East-Central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn‘t yet met.”

Thematically the book recalls Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Heller‘s Catch-22, and those writers’ satiric, beside-themselves take on international relations. In terms of plot and tone, Y.S.K.O.V. is one part On the Road, one part Cannonball Run -- it‘s both a race and an alt-cult coming-of-age story. And like Kerouac’s book, Eggers‘ could inspire a generation as much as it documents it. Indeed, the thing that people hate about Eggers’ writing -- his cleverness, his obnoxiousness, his self-obsession -- is precisely what makes him so good. His characters reflect much of young America‘s attitude about themselves and the world around them, just as the dark, ecstatic, fucked-up characters of Sal and Dean reflected the underbelly of ’50s America in On the Road.

Will -- the narrator of Y.S.K.O.V. -- and his cohort Hand are two 20-somethings from Wisconsin, muddling through their lives and stupid jobs when their close friend Jack is killed in a horrific car accident. While sorting through a storage locker containing Jack‘s belongings, Will is savagely beaten by an unidentified mob. Later, he comes into a considerable sum of easy money -- $80,000 for allowing a silhouetted image of himself screwing in a light bulb to appear on the packaging of a new brand of incandescent. Inspired by flat-fare airline tickets that allow you to fly around the world unrestricted, as long as you continue on in one direction, Will and Hand improvise a trip around the globe in seven days. They plan to give away $32,000, overpaying trinket merchants one-thousand-fold and taping it to donkeys. There is poetry to their itinerary:

Chicago to New York to Greenland

Greenland to Rwanda

Rwanda to Madagascar

Madagascar to Mongolia

Mongolia to Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan to New York to Chicago

But the results are more prosaic. As with many young Americans on an overseas vacation, they know next to nothing about their destinations, and so they fall victim to cabbies, unknowingly chat up prostitutes, visit seedy discotheques. Most importantly, they find that giving away money is easier said than done -- and rarely guilt-free.

Almost as interesting as the plot of Y.S.K.O.V. is the story behind the novel, most notably the fact that Eggers has self-published it through his own McSweeney’s imprint. The first edition of 50,000 copies is available only from the McSweeneys.net Web site and in 100 independent bookstores nationwide. You could say that it‘s a brave and perverse choice, given that his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (A.H.W.O.S.G.), achieved a rare publishing trifecta. (Excerpted in The New Yorker, it was credible in literary circles; its breezy, funny, footnoted text impressed those among the hip, pop-culture cognoscenti; and it was a genuine hit on best-seller lists, moving upward of 300,000 copies in hardcover.) Depending on the success of this latest venture, you could say that Eggers is rejecting the big money of a second book advance, or astutely marketing himself and hoarding all the revenues. (Undoubtedly for a good cause: Earlier this year he founded 826 Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District; mainly a drop-in center for tutoring kids in writing, it‘s also a fully functional pirate shop that sells items like lard, mops and peg legs, the proceeds from which benefit the center.)

A.H.W.O.S.G., a memoir of the time after the early, simultaneous cancer deaths of Eggers’ parents, followed his efforts to deal with his anger and raise his 8-year-old brother, Toph, while running Might magazine, the satirical publication he founded in S.F. In large part, Eggers cut a sympathetic figure, but reactions to the book and the author were mixed. While many readers responded with cultlike fervor, making his publishing imprint an indie-lit success story and his Web site a daily must-see, there‘s also been a small backlash among journalists and critics. The thinking goes that Eggers is perhaps too self-reliant, too clever and too self-conscious.

Yet he’s clearly the brightest light in what can be viewed as a kind of Tender Asshole School of fiction writers, in which I‘d place some of our most conspicuously talented contemporary authors -- David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, Rick Moody. Their neuroses are tactile, as are their pulsing brains and their sizable hearts. They are too tender for this world. One part of you wants to stroke their heads and tell them everything is going to be all right; the other wants to slap them and tell them to get their shit together.

It’s not that these authors are unaware of their flaws. The protagonist of Johnson‘s best book, Jesus’ Son, is nicknamed “Fuckhead.” “So there‘s the matter of our crimes,” writes Rick Moody at the start of his memoir The Black Veil. “The remembrance of our misdoings is grievous to us; the burden of them is intolerable.” In Y.S.K.O.V., Will blows $1,600 on airplane tickets, musing, “I thought of the people who could live or eat off money like this -- how many people and for how long. We were motherfucking bastards. I buried the shame deep within. I burned it and danced around it, leapt over it.”

Will’s charity has shades of Eggers‘ own; it’s been reported that the author burned through a lot of his A.H.W.O.S.G. earnings on his publishing ventures, 826 Valencia and travels to various exotic locales. Though the conversations between Will and Hand crackle with energy and wit, they sometimes seem less like two distinct characters than an internal monologue between two sides of the author. In A.H.W.O.S.G., Eggers played with this idea in a postmodern, 50-page exchange between himself and a producer for MTV‘s Real World. In Y.S.K.O.V., Will likens his brain to “a toddler in a room full of new guests,” tells us it “hovers on hummingbird wings,” and has imaginary conversations with other characters, including a 10-page fever dream in which he pleads, “Fuck. I want out of this fucking head.” So be it. Will’s narration is an amazingly accurate portrayal of the way grief can bend into madness. And if Y.S.K.O.V. were nothing more than an earnest, funny, angsty document of one human mind‘s back-and-forth over the guilt and horror of life and death, it would be well worth the price of admission ($22).

But it’s more than that. Eggers nails the ludicrousness of pop culture. In a bar in Estonia, “A big screen TV was activated, and on it a movie featuring crazy sharks with huge brains eating scientists and LL Cool J.” At a travel agency in Senegal, a character wears his socks “Van Horned up around his calves.” Without judgment, these references (to the film Deep Blue Sea and the NBA‘s reigning dufus, Keith Van Horn, respectively) deftly show how ridiculous a world it is America has constructed via entertainment exports.

Eggers also brings youth to the page, both its deep affections and its idiocy. On one hand, Will remembers Champagne Snowball, the junior high dance: “Feel the heat of her chest against yours. Feel the heave. You will never know heaving like that again so soak in that heave.” On the other, he remembers dousing a cow with gasoline and burning it alive: “We had no right. This was the same year we first wanted to kiss all the girls. We were darkhearted boys. We should have been jailed or drugged or killed. I remember watching that cow burn with total detachment.”

Most importantly, Eggers underscores America’s obscene wealth and know-nothing outlook on the rest of the world. At a reading at Midnight Special a month ago, he had this to say about Y.S.K.O.V.‘s plot: “Someone asked if it was an allegory for American intervention abroad. And I was . . .” -- he paused, smiled, demured -- “. . . flattered by that.” Still, it’s hard not to read the book as a timely parable.

You Shall Know Our Velocity is the work of a wildly talented writer early in his career, propelled by a brain hovering on hummingbird wings, and shaking a bit as he takes flight. Let me share the last lines of the novel because, for a book that opens by foretelling the death of its narrator, they provide reason to hope: “. . . I lived! We lived!”

YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY | By DAVE EGGERS | McSweeney‘s Books | 371 pages $22 hardcover