Before we discuss “The Monk of Mokha,” let’s take a moment to appreciate what Dave Eggers is not. After his 2000 memoir“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” became a hugely influential bestseller, Eggers could have easily written the same book over and over again for the rest of his life. Or perhaps he might have degenerated into one of those one-hit-wunderkinds who only occasionally deign to issue girthy novels about famous novelists experiencing midlife crises.
Instead, Eggers has spent the massive capital generated through his sudden literary celebrity on ceaseless experimentation. He’s written screenplays and children’s books and a spray of curious novels that feel nothing like the plodding, self-referential paperweights some of his peers have been crushed beneath. He became a publisher of books and journals, and a relentless advocate for nonprofits, founding literacy centers for underprivileged kids in a half-dozen cities. He is generous with his platform, sharing his fame with writers and causes who deserve greater attention.
Eggers’ most interesting projects to date are the three biographies he has published about exceptional American stories. He began with “What Is the What” (2006), a semi-fictionalized account of a “Lost Boy of Sudan” named Valentino Achak Deng. He followed with “Zeitoun” (2009), the story of a Syrian American man who was wrongfully arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorism while selflessly helping those in need in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the center of that story, was later arrested for allegedly attacking his ex-wife and then for allegedly conspiring to have her murdered. The problem with working on real-life subjects, any biographer will tell you, is that they often live long enough to let you down.)
And now Eggers has published the third in that series, “The Monk of Mokha,” which tells the story of a young Yemeni American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali. Though he grew up chiefly in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — his first memory of San Francisco, at age 8, is “of a man defecating on a Mercedes” — Alkhanshali as a young man lived for a time in his grandfather’s home in Yemen, which Eggers describes as “a country more misunderstood than perhaps any other.” A smart but undisciplined child, Alkhanshali grew into a serious young man during his time in Yemen and returned to the United States with a bone-deep desire to make something of himself.
When we meet Alkhanshali, he’s a doorman at the Infinity luxury condominiums, greeting residents and providing passage to the abundant support staff that wealthy San Franciscans require to merely get by — the package-delivery people, the pet nutritionists, the chandelier repairman. “The job, Mokhtar’s existence there, was a reminder that there were those who lived in glass towers, and those who opened doors for them,” Eggers writes.
At the Infinity, Alkhanshali works as witness and gatekeeper for the chasm of inequality that threatens to tear America apart. And there’s no question on which side of that chasm Alkhanshali belongs; the doorman job had at one time been unionized, but the union had been broken and Alkhanshali was earning a pittance — and grateful for it.
Coffee is the lever through which Alkhanshali would move the mighty American dream in his direction.
Eggers characterizes this book as being “chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat.” It’s basically a Horatio Alger story for the 21st century, though Alkhanshali characterizes his own tale using a more modern literary reference: “When Mokhtar was tired of being poor, of stepping over homeless addicts, of sleeping with six siblings in one room, his mind drifted and allowed the possibility that maybe he was like Harry [Potter], part of this hardscrabble world for now, but destined for something more.”
Coffee is the lever through which Alkhanshali would move the mighty American dream in his direction. Alkhanshali’s indoctrination into the centuries-old tradition of coffee culture carries the same wonder for him that wizarding did for the young Potter.
In his early days of research, Alkhanshali learns that coffee was first brewed by a Muslim monk and that Yemen was the cradle of coffee culture before economics and the capriciousness of history moved the business’ epicenter to Ethiopia. The middle of “Mokha,” when we learn the history of coffee along with Alkhanshali, is by far the most interesting part of the book.
At its best moments, ‘Mokha’ reads like one of those obsessive journalistic explorations of a quotidian object—think John McPhee’s grand ‘Oranges.’
At its best moments, “Mokha” reads like one of those obsessive journalistic explorations of a quotidian object—think John McPhee’s grand “Oranges” or Mark Kurlansky’s brilliant “Cod” or “Salt.” “Coffee was a fruit, from a tree,” Eggers writes: “a tree that usually bloomed once a year, and inside each fruit was the coffee bean. And the two halves of the bean were what we typically saw—the tiny bean, oval and with a stripe of concavity down the middle. Two halves of a bean, wrapped inside a fleshy fruit the size of a grape.”
That small fruit yields one of the largest, most consequential crops in the history of civilization. The history of coffee is one of conquest and colonialization, of commerce and art. People throughout much of recorded history have died for coffee, have devoted their lives to coffee, have been enslaved for coffee. Even in modern times, the coffee trade shapes the course of lives around the globe.
“Everywhere along the line there were people involved” with the production of coffee, Alkhanshali realizes, and almost every one of those people is exploited, from the farmers to the baggers to those unfortunate souls whose only job is “removing the sticky mucilage from each bean.” His big idea, then, is to reclaim Yemen’s role as the coffee’s birthplace — to seduce upscale American consumers to the unique pleasures of Yemeni beans. His dream is to revitalize Yemen’s economy, and to do right financially by all those forgotten workers along the way, while still turning a tidy profit for himself and his family.
The final third of “Mokha” is concerned with the procurement and delivery of Alkhanshali’s first crop — a shipment of tons of beans — through a Yemen choked with civil war and battered by Saudi missile strikes. It’s a cracking tale of intrigue and bravery and more than a little bit of luck. (You can read an abbreviated corporate-biography version of the same story on Alkhanshali’s website, www.portofmokha.com.)
At some points, Eggers seems a little too generous to the subject of his book. When confronted by racist, xenophobic antagonists, the Alkhanshali in the story is prone to rearing back and delivering perfect, righteous speeches that shame villains into realizing the error of their ways. If Alkhanshali’s encounter with an Islamophobic security guard at the Lincoln Memorial is true, for example — and it well could be — it still rings of fiction.
These moments are brusque reminders of the limits of creative nonfiction. To write “Mokha,” Eggers performed hundreds of hours of interviews and traveled thousands of miles with Alkhanshali. But the book features dozens of pages of dialogue that Eggers could not have heard and scenes that he did not personally witness. He is by no means impartial; Alkhanshali is his friend, and the book is a celebration of that friendship. Eggers excels when he brings his sweeping novelist’s scope to the issues that matter most to him — income inequality, the spoils of colonialization — and he stumbles when Alkhanshali’s tale demands a more impartial witness.
But really, every biography is a kind of love story between the author and their subject. And if Eggers leans a bit too heavily on the over-earnest mythologization of an American citizen with deep Yemeni roots during the disastrous Trump presidency, who — really — could blame him? Eggers is using his formidable literary powers and cachet to amplify the stories of victimized people in a moment of crisis — and he’s doing so in the form of a gripping, triumphant adventure story. If more breakout literary sensations parlayed their celebrity into meaningful acts of citizenship, maybe kids like Alkhanshali wouldn’t have to struggle quite so hard to find a place in the world.
Constant is a critic in Seattle and co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books.
Knopf: 352 pp., $28.95