It’s easy to forget now, but before Dave Eggers became one of the country’s leading literary eminences, he was best known as a satirist.
In the years leading up to his best-selling memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (2000), he drew a comic strip for a San Francisco alternative weekly that thrived on mocking easy targets. (Hey, don’t you think guys with goatees are pretentious? Aren’t strip-club ads weird?) The magazine he co-founded in the ’90s, Might, is best remembered for a hoax that falsely claimed that “Eight Is Enough” star Adam Rich had been murdered. Today, social media would have debunked the story in nanoseconds. In the dial-up days of 1996, the prank had legs.
Well, the fun’s over. Eggers’s publishing company, McSweeney’s, maintains a humor Web site, but mostly it promotes serious literary fiction and oral histories with social-justice themes. Eggers boosts childhood literacy through his 826 National organization (which includes a branch in Washington called 826DC). The magazine he founded in 2003, the Believer, has an anti-snark manifesto. And in the past three years Eggers has written three nakedly moralistic, message-driven novels, the latest of which is a preposterous but oddly engaging jeremiad about the misuse of power: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?”
Thomas, the novel’s corroded protagonist, methodically kidnaps a handful of people, among them an astronaut, a retired congressman, a grade-school teacher and his own mother. They’re handcuffed to poles in separate buildings at Fort Ord, a decommissioned Northern California Army post. This isn’t a plot, exactly. The story doesn’t turn on the question of whether Thomas and his captives will escape, and Eggers only barely sketches out how they were captured (formaldehyde, etc.). He is just blocking the stage for this novel, written entirely in dialogue. We’re all going to have a little talk.
What Thomas urgently wishes to discuss is the death of a friend, Don, a mentally ill man who was killed by police after behaving erratically. But first, alas, we must cover the poor stewardship of public funds.
The astronaut, Thomas figures, can tell him about dashed dreams because the space shuttle was shut down before he could travel in it. “We just spent five trillion dollars on useless wars,” Thomas fumes. “That could have gone to the moon. Or Mars. Or the Shuttle. Or something that would inspire us.” The congressman, he figures, can explain why space travel and education and support for the mentally ill aren’t a priority. And he does: “If there were an alien invasion tomorrow, and the only way to win against the aliens would be to fully fund Head Start, then sure, we would find that money.”
I feared, early on, that a civics quiz would be coming. The novel’s opening banter is earnest and didactic, Eggers using his fiction to work through his public-policy concerns. And Thomas, who’s plainly disturbed, is a hard main character to get behind. His voice tends to shift between messianic pronunciamento (“I’m a moral man and I’m a principled man.”) and adolescent sarcasm. (“You can’t tell me about survival,” he tells his mother. “I barely survived you.”)
Yet as the details about Don’s life and death become clearer (molestation, etc.), Thomas’s voice gains a third, more empathetic register that redeems the novel: a voice of rage and grief. “Your Fathers” acts out a kind of revenge fantasy that many people indulge when faced with the world’s unfairness: If only I could just make all these people sit down and listen, really listen, to me!
“I have an astronaut here who did everything he was told to do and it got him nowhere,” Thomas says. “On the other end of the scale there’s Don, who wanted to be left alone, who was confused, and the price of being confused in this world is seventeen bullets in your own backyard.”
You have to go back to Steinbeck and Vonnegut to find a popular American novelist so willing to deploy his talents to such deliberately political ends. And as with those two authors, Eggers’s success rate is erratic. His 2012 novel, “A Hologram for the King,” about a middle-aged man trying to reboot his career in Saudi Arabia, was a careful and affecting lament for America’s economic decline. “The Circle” (2013), though, was a tedious lecture on corporate tech firms’ erosion of our privacy. “Your Fathers” falls roughly in between.
Eggers is still tinkering with a moral fiction that’s as flexible and subtle as any other kind, and at its worst it sounds like it’s being said by an angry op-ed columnist on a bender. Yet the dialogue-only structure and depth of feeling in “Your Fathers” are to its credit. You know what Eggers wants to say, he says it quickly, and he says it with a respectably righteous fury.
And, ultimately, he says it with a compassion that’s always been present in his work, even when he caked it in layers of snark. His “Grapes of Wrath” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” still elude him. But watching him work his way toward that level is one of the more fascinating literary projects going.
Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER?
By Dave Eggers
212 pp. $25.95