The danger of making your entree in the literary scene by publishing a critically acclaimed memoir is that readers then wonder -- great, fine, but do you have another book in you? Now that your personal horrors are purged, do you have the skill to tackle fiction? Dave Eggers' best-selling, rave-reviewed memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, left many curious. With the release this month of his self-published first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, the answer is clear: He does not have that skill. At least not without an editor to help him.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is the first-person tale of 27-year-old Will, who unexpectedly comes into money, which makes him feel unworthy and guilty. Will enlists his buddy Hand to go on a breakneck weeklong trip around the globe, giving the money out to poor people in exotic locales like Senegal and Morocco. Will and Hand's friend has recently died in a tragic collision with an 18-wheeler, and Will's maudlin monologues about his grief weave through the book. Maybe Will's trying to get rid of his money because he's sad that his friend died, or perhaps the travel narrative seemed too fun and light and this was an attempt to add "depth." Either way, I had trouble buying Will's motivation.
Many of the scenes -- among them pages of endless goofy dialogue between Hand and Will, and the rapid appearance and disappearance of random characters -- feel like outtakes from the real novel we didn't get a chance to read. There's no doubt that Eggers can write: He's buried gems of description throughout the book ("Carradine looked like a guy who would be selling handmade hemp wallets at a flea market"). But in the end, the disjointed, hard-to-believe Velocity is far less than the sum of its parts.