Dave Eggers has spent much of his life figuring out how best to help people. He first gained widespread attention in 2000 with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” an ironic memoir about dropping out of college to raise his little brother after their parents died. His first novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” was about a couple of friends tearing around the world trying to give away money. His other books have brought attention to the plight of teachers, wrongfully convicted prisoners and the Lost Boys of Sudan. Eggers befriended an entrepreneurial Yemeni American, traveled with him to Africa, and last year published a book about the coffee industry and the Yemeni civil war called “The Monk of Mokha.” And along the way, he founded 826 National, a literacy organization for children with branches in eight cities.
In other words, Eggers is not just a charitable person; he’s not writing checks and turning away. He thinks deeply about complex social and political problems and then rolls up his sleeves.
Given that record of active concern and service, what are we to make of his slight new novel, “The Parade,” a tale of Western assistance in the developing world?
The story opens in an unnamed country that has recently emerged from civil war. To reunify this broken land, an international company has been hired to build a highway connecting the rural south to the urban north. In two weeks, when the work is done, the president will hold a parade to demonstrate his nation’s new era of peace and prosperity. All that remains is to pave and paint this 150-mile road. That job will be accomplished by a single gargantuan machine driven by one man, assisted by another man who drives ahead to keep the path clear. Completing the job from start to finish is the whole plot of “The Parade.”
For security reasons, the two men entrusted with this work don’t give their names, identifying themselves only by numbers. The driver of the giant paving machine is “Four,” an experienced construction worker who holds strictly to every company policy, particularly the rule prohibiting interaction with the local populace. Much to Four’s consternation, his partner, “Nine,” is a cavalier novice who constantly wanders away to frolic with the people they pass. Four deplores everything about his younger partner, from his ridiculously long hair to his disregard for the dangers of their job. But Nine has such a buoyant spirit and such an appreciation for this place and these native people that he makes Four seem dour and hardhearted.
“I’ve never seen so many stars,” Nine says when describing his previous night’s antics. “Incredible sky here. It’s so close, like you could jump up and wave your hands and gather the stars like sand. So I walked with my head thrown back, just astonished, and all along I would encounter people, and when they saw my jumpsuit they knew I was part of the road team. And they were so thankful. So grateful. I mean, they were walking on the surface barefoot, the asphalt still warm, just to see what it felt like . . . ! So much music. And the food!”
When Nine asks him to come enjoy a meal at a nearby village, Four angrily rebuffs him. “I’m staying with the vehicle because my contract requires me to,” he says. “I don’t want local food, and you shouldn’t either. You’re acting like a child on holiday.”
All of this is fairly engaging, though it’s tempting to think we’ve seen this buddy film before: the grumpy old crank who does everything by the book and the carefree heartthrob who drives him crazy, gosh darnit! We know they will engage in epic arguments. We know that after some crisis the old guy will soften up and appreciate his partner’s joie de vivre, while the younger man will learn to respect his boss’s wisdom.
These are not spoilers so much as the terms of the Buddy genre, and for most of the novel, Eggers does not deviate from that. Nine’s delight with everything is a constant irritant to his machine-like partner, but it’s also a persistent reminder of how much life Four is missing.
Which brings us to what this novel is missing. Eggers has pared his clever style down to a series of flat, declarative sentences. The characters have been crunched into types. The details of this place have been sandblasted away. At best, we’re left with the stark elements of a parable, which raises the book’s pretentiousness quotient to dangerously high levels. At worst, we have a story that conforms to the West’s reductive attitudes about the developing world. Writers and politicians have long generalized about those individual cultures. A novel that lumps them together into a nameless, primitive nation only plays into that tendency.
But what’s truly disappointing is the novel’s final paragraph, which lands like a molotov cocktail of toxic cynicism. If this parable offers any lessons, it’s that Nine’s delight was foolish, that efforts to help economic development are wasted and that political reform will never work in those places that President Trump calls “shithole countries.”
I don’t read novels to have my fantasies of progress affirmed, but I don’t read them to be told that hope is a cheat, either.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. He is a volunteer adviser at 826DC, a local branch of 826 National.
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By Dave Eggers
Knopf. 192 pp. $25.95