McSweeney's (2004), $22
The latest from Dave Eggers is 200 pages of sad, self-absorbed Americans abroad gazing wistfully at cloud lines. There are Costa Rican beaches and African peaks, cardboard natives and animals deployed in service of a vague symbolism. It's Hemingway updated for the Eggers set -- Hemingway with sideburns, but without the pathos.
Eggers' first short-story collection is stylized and self-conscious down to its look, like a moleskin journal, with a griffin on the bare, black cover. It includes long stories intercut with briefer, execrable casuals. Take, for instance, "What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him From His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust" (or "W.I.M.W.A.C.I.A. F.N.T.A.S.R.Y.O.N.S.H.D.H.F.H.V.A.T.M.H.I.T.D.," for short): What it means, Eggers concludes after a page, is that it sucks to watch it on TV. Another story, "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself," is followed by four blank pages, a pretentious groaner that nevertheless offers a kind of relief not unlike when a bad movie skips off its reel. Throughout, Eggers' writing is typically loose -- and occasionally quite pretty -- but he often veers into sloppiness. The bulk of the collection, or at least its soul, is given over to the chronicles of needy Americans looking for something better somewhere else. In the book's set piece, "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," an obvious nod to Hemingway, Eggers ditches his frequent metaintrusions and tells a story full of creeping menace about a woman's climb up Kilimanjaro. The payoff, however, is flawed: An African porter dies, yet the important thing to the writer isn't the death itself, but rather its purchase on the woman's conscience -- an adventure story turned into a morally obtuse homily about white guilt. Fitting for members of the Eggers generation, lost in a different way: inside themselves.