The empathy crisis

Steve Almond is the author of the short story collections "My Life in Heavy Metal" and "The Evil B.B. Chow."

AS the best-known writer of his generation, Dave Eggers has attracted more than his share of criticism. He has been accused of pretension, self-indulgence, false modesty and flagrant postmodernism (whatever that might be). Most of these bombs have been lobbed by folks who are envious of Eggers -- his youth, his talent, his outsize ambition. Very few of his critics, at any rate, have bothered to identify Eggers for what he is: an unabashed humanist.

"What Is the What" should change that. In his fourth book, Eggers has ditched the ironic cleverness in which he draped previous efforts, including his bestselling 2000 memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." The new novel is unremittingly earnest, a direct and stirring effort to engage the sympathies of its audience.

It could hardly be otherwise, given our narrator. Valentino Achak Deng is a young Dinka refugee caught in the crossfire between government-sponsored Arab militiamen and rebel soldiers. His idyllic life as the son of a local merchant in southern Sudan ends abruptly when the war reaches his village:

"I looked through the doorway and saw that the man had lowered his gun. And with that, without any sort of passion, he kicked my father in the face. The sound was dull, like a hand slapping the hide of a cow. He kicked him again and the sound was different this time. A crack, precisely like the breaking of a stick under one's knee.

"At that moment something in me snapped. I felt it. I could not be mistaken. It was as if there were a handful of taut strings inside me, holding me straight, holding together my brain and heart and legs, and at that moment, one of these strings, thin and delicate, snapped."

Forced to flee his home and family, Valentino becomes one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan and begins a brutal pilgrimage to the (relative) safety of an Ethiopian refugee camp. Along the way, he watches dozens of his young comrades perish of hunger and disease. Others are gunned down by soldiers or devoured by lions and crocodiles. The boys become, in a very real sense, walking prey. "If we stayed in one place too long, the vultures would become more interested," Valentino explains. "Sleeping for more than an hour in the sun was sure to bring carrion birds, and we had to be vigilant, lest the birds begin to feast while we were alive."

Eggers did not just dream up these horrors. He spent years interviewing the real Valentino, and the book -- a sort of authorized autobiography -- captures the clipped, anguished rhythms of a confessional.

Eggers has wisely decided to channel Valentino rather than embellish him. But his fidelity to the voice and experiences of his subject at times overruns his duties as a novelist. He tends to use the book's characters as mouthpieces to provide historical background, for instance. He forces Valentino to relate his story in a series of hokey direct addresses. Above all, Eggers seems more intent on cataloging the physical hardships Valentino suffers than on shaping a plot that will plumb his internal crises.

A more charitable way of putting it would be this: The book's most compelling passages are those in which our hero appears least intrepid, those moments when his indomitable will breaks and he speaks to the reader about his loss of faith, his rage -- even the way in which his refugee status has forced him to commodify his misery. "We were all used, in different ways," he observes. "We were used for war, we were used to garner food and the sympathy of the humanitarian-aid organizations. Even when we were going to school, we were being used."

Such instances of naked bitterness, though, are rare. For all his misfortune, Valentino remains stubbornly obedient to hope. For a few pages, at least, the reader is led to believe that Valentino's perseverance will pay off. After a decade spent in two different camps, he hits what amounts to the refugee Lotto: He is granted permission to resettle in America.

But the promised land turns out to be a cruel and lonely place. His educational plan gets derailed. His girlfriend is murdered. Thieves rob his apartment and beat him senseless. The Valentino we encounter is well on his way to becoming just another immigrant wage slave.

None of which does much to discourage him. He is forever striving toward prosperity, seeking to extract benevolence from the world around him. There is more than a touch of Candide in his benighted optimism, and plenty of Dickens' scrappy Pip as well. Even in his bleakest hour, Valentino refuses to surrender his dreams. He insists he will earn a college degree, meet a Sudanese girl, start a family. "America, in its way, would provide a home for us: glass, waterfalls, bowls of bright oranges set upon clean tables." In this sense, he becomes a poster boy for the immigrant spirit that built this country and a searing rebuke to those cynical politicians who have sought to demonize the very people who embody what they relish calling the American Dream.

But Eggers is actually after bigger game here. In presenting the saga of Valentino, he means to address the crisis of empathy in this country. He is asking Americans -- young Americans, in particular -- to turn away from the selfishness endorsed by their leaders and popular media and begin taking responsibility for the human suffering they know to exist in the world.

The great risk, of course, is that the book will become just another opportunity for self-congratulation. Readers will absorb the lyric woe, toss a few bucks to charity and feel they have done their share. The Lost Boys of Sudan will once again be used, this time by wealthy Americans seeking to soothe their consciences. Oprah has already gotten in on the act and rendered the Lost Boys as another inspirational daytime melodrama.

As voiced by Eggers, Valentino is asking for more than that. He doesn't want pity, he wants sustained moral concern. He wants a world in which the powerful accept it as their duty to aid the powerless instead of supposing they don't exist. That might sound like a pipe dream in an era dominated by myths of conquest and violence, but it is certainly a Christian pipe dream -- you need only examine the Beatitudes for evidence -- and one that might hold the key to our national salvation.

"What Is the What" is a stunning act of compassion and a great read, but I can't quite decide if it's a great novel. I kept finding myself wondering about the thousands of Lost Boys who aren't as strong, or as lucky, as Valentino -- the ones who give up hope, abandon their essential humanity and turn cynical and destructive. That's not a story most Americans would care to read. But it is one that would force us to consider our own capacities for evil and the frailties we may already have in common with the less heroic Lost Boys of this world. *

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