By Troy Patterson
Updated October 18, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Chez McSweeney, no jacket is required. Written and illustrated by Dave Eggers, designed (gracefully), copyedited (slightly sloppily), and published by the company he runs, the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity begins with the paragraph boldly engraved on its cover:

”Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met. It was a clear and eyeblue day, that day, as was the first day of this story, a few years ago in January, on Chicago’s North Side, in the opulent shadow of Wrigley and with the wind coming low and searching off the jagged half-frozen lake. I was inside, very warm, walking from door to door.”

There’s an echolet of James Joyce there and something of Saul Bellow’s Chi-town bounce, but we’re carried into the narrative by a fluidity of line that is Eggers’ own. The author of the memoir ”A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” has produced a fiction devoted to motion, and though ”Y.S.K.O.V.” coasts only on charm for scores of pages at a stretch, at its best, it simply moves and is moving.

The speaker is Will, a 27-year-old white male bearing the angel of altruism and the devil of irony on his American shoulders. He is pacing around his apartment talking to his closest living friend, a dabbler known as Hand. They grew up together in Wisconsin with Jack, who ”had calm where I had chaos and wisdom where Hand had just a huge gaping always-moving mouth,” and who died five months before in an accident that left his car ”an angry scribble.” Will, wrecked by Jack’s loss, is talking Hand into taking a trip: ”My head was a condemned church with a ceiling of bats but I swung from this dark mood to euphoria when I thought about leaving.” Will has come into a chunk of money that he can’t stand to own, so the two plan to dispose of it with random acts of charity, to get rid of $38,000 in the course of a one-week trip around the world. Qatar, Mongolia, Rwanda, and Greenland present themselves as likely destinations.

At points, Will and Hand seem like a somewhat ironic edition of ”On the Road”’s Sal and Dean, racing through time with a leaping passion. In their interplay, they recall the heroes of ”Mason & Dixon,” the melancholic and the extrovert enacting a smart comedy about male friendship. But often, too often, Will and Hand resemble nothing so much as a road-company version of one of Samuel Beckett’s dolorous duos. Or Beavis and Butt-head. They absurdly (and repeatedly and tediously) suffer flat rent-a-car tires, neon-cheesy discos, dehumanizing hustlers, indifferent ticket clerks, and waiting for whatever. Thus, what might otherwise be considered great throwaway lines — a pushy hooker pats a crotch ”like you would the head of a muzzled dog,” an exhausted Will lies down to learn that ”sleep could be a destination, like a warm island full of food” — stand as the only parts one wants to keep.

Yet for every dead passage there’s a sterling set piece, an energetic consideration of grief or joy, of the weight of the shackles of guilt or how good it feels to be free. The word ”shame” and its variants appear no fewer than 14 times here; Will is ashamed of how much he misses Jack, of the privileges his race and nationality afford him, of the idealistic idiocy of his philanthropy spree, of being in Africa and eating at Pizza Hut. ”Y.S.K.O.V.” is a good tour of a head damaged by death, the only answer to which is living well: sprinting across rocks, gaping at skies, taking in the world. A scene evoking the sweet and sweaty fumblings of a junior high dance is worth half the price of admission: ”Feel the heat of her chest against yours. Feel the heave. You will never know heaving like that again…”

This book is hard to come by. The first press run was a scant 10,000 copies, a small shame itself. Despite its emotional depth and inventive structure, ”You Shall Know Our Velocity” is nobody’s masterpiece and falls short of its predecessor, but Eggers is so attuned to the logic of bereavement and the plain glory of life that his novel deserves something larger than a coterie audience.

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