Dave Eggers' latest is all talk, no action
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
By Dave Eggers
Alfred A. Knopf / McSweeneys. 217 pp. $25.95.
Reviewed by Steven Rea
Dave Eggers has written a play - not, as it's billed on its paper-bag-like dust jacket, a novel.
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (hereafter referred to as Your Fathers, thank you very much) consists wholly and solely of dialogue - back and forth between a serial kidnapper and his respective victims, each of whom he has scooped up, like a kid who can't stop popping Gummi bears, and deposited in their own cavernous barracks in an abandoned military base on the California coast.
With some imaginative lighting and stage design, and a few talented actors, maybe this formalistic stunt could work.
Thomas, the captor - a thirtysomething guy full of dashed hopes and cross purposes - begins with just one captive, a NASA astronaut he calls Kev. Stalked, chloroformed, and now chained to a post in an empty building, Kev is rightfully angry, and concerned for his life. Thomas tells him not to worry, they know each other, he just wants to talk.
"What I did to you was methodical and nonviolent," he explains. "It was a means to an end. . . . You haven't answered my letters, so I didn't think I had a choice. I really do apologize for having to do it this way. I've been in a strange place lately. I was getting these migraines, I couldn't sleep. . . . The questions were piling up and strangling me at night. Have you ever had that, where you're lying there, and the questions are just these asps wrapping themselves around your throat?"
Kev's answer is to the point, and unprintable in this newspaper:
"You are so [expletive] nuts."
Your Fathers is Eggers' ninth book. His first, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was published in 2000, and its tale of a young man's struggle to raise his kid brother after the deaths of their parents moved people to tears.
Eggers' subsequent output has been admirably industrious: short stories, a collection of interviews with wrongfully convicted prisoners, a nonfiction book about a Katrina survivor who canoed around New Orleans helping neighbors, a novelization of Maurice Sendak's children's book Where the Wild Things Are, and novels, including A Hologram for the King (2012) and The Circle (2013), both of which addressed issues of new technologies and how they affect our lives, our culture. And there have been screenplays, and side projects, and McSweeney's, the publishing house that issues literary journals, audio journals, more.
Clearly, Eggers has been thinking a lot, doing a lot, writing a lot.
Your Fathers is a book about somebody who's thinking a whole bunch, too. But Thomas' thoughts twist in spires of paranoia and rage, as he struggles to make sense of the death of a friend (a Vietnamese American shot by police), to make sense of his inability to connect with women, to hold down a job.
Excusing himself from Kev (an astronaut who came onto the NASA team too late - they closed the shuttle program before he could get aboard), Thomas runs off and returns to the military base with another drugged and abducted talking companion. This one is a former congressman, a veteran who lost two limbs in Vietnam. Then another: a retired middle-school teacher who was accused of molesting his students. And so on.
The only suspense to be had in this clunky series of two-handers is in discovering who Thomas is going to grab next, so, it would be a spoiler to list them all here.
Suffice to say that each of his seven victims fits into a hole in Thomas' confused, compartmentalized mind: someone who did him wrong, or did his dead friend wrong, or who could help him make things right in this world where the government has let us down, where schools have let us down, where greed, callousness, and religious hypocrisy have ripped the fabric of society to shreds.
As the days pass, as the prisoners squirm in profound discomfort, more than one will look Thomas in the eye and say something like, "Please don't kill me."
You may wonder, though, why nobody says "I need to use the bathroom."
Thomas' prisoners get thrown granola bars, given water. But in Eggers' heavy-handed allegorical scenario nobody needs to go to the toilet.
Talk about being detached from reality.
Steven Rea is The Inquirer's film critic.