There are only two plots in fiction, John Gardner once told us: A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. In Dave Eggers’ new novel, “The Parade,” two men go on a journey: flat, direct and more dangerous than either will admit.
They are contractors tasked with completing a road that will unite north and south in a temperate nation just emerging from a long civil war. The duo are opposites: one experienced, the other a novice; one garrulous, the other taciturn; one eating freeze-dried food in his tent, the other eager to meet the locals.
Counterintuitively, we are told the story by the boring guy, the one who doesn’t notice the surroundings, likes taking inventories and simply wants to complete the job. When he describes the RS-90, the 34-ton road-surfacing machine he’ll be driving, it’s like he’s seeing a reflection of his best self. “Every so often, he thought, humans make a perfect machine, one that requires little maintenance, that efficiently draws what it needs from the world, executes its work and asks for nothing in return.”
We know him only as Four, a pseudonym required by his multinational employer in case of kidnapping or worse. The narrative is deliberately unbranded, unspecific. The enthusiastic, inexperienced partner goes by Nine.
This pushes the narrative into an allegorical space, even as we are up close and personal with the two on their trip from south to north. What does it mean to identify only as a number doing a job? These two private contractors from a developed nation (probably America) are making a quick buck off the hopeful reforms of a place less fortunate. But their assignment is going to connect the modern cities of the north with the less advanced south — a benefit to all, they are told.
And how should they proceed? Four is determined to keep his eyes on the road. Nine, whose job is to ride ahead clearing the path of the advancing, unstoppable RS-90, wants to eat, talk and laugh with the locals. And drink. And woo the women, should the opportunity arise.
This all drives Four absolutely batty. He catalogs his partner’s “infractions” and has revenge fantasies of picking up the satellite phone and reporting him to the home office. He resists, however, fearing that any complaint from him will reflect badly on him. His managers expect him to get the job done and keep any problems to himself.
Eggers has been writing fiction that tells a story of America in our present moment, and often that moment is characterized by decline.
As a traveling companion, Nine is actually delightful, if roguish. He speaks the local language and has a tendency to stay out all night at the nearest village. He comes back each morning overflowing with stories. It’s hard to tell what Four hates the most: Nine’s fraternizing, his conversation, his joie de vivre, or his nonchalance about their schedule.
They have exactly 12 days to complete the job, because the moment they are done, the northern leader will conduct a parade down its length celebrating the reconciliation. Everything is in place and ready to go. There is no room for error.
So, of course, something will go wrong.
Nine goes missing, then is discovered, alive but in jeopardy. As schoolmarmish as Four’s attitude has been, it begins to seem sensible when his partner’s carelessness puts them both at risk. And really, they’re just two strangers.
Four needs to figure out how to get the job done and take care of Nine (or not). Without ever feeling like he has much of a choice, he becomes someone who commits his own litany of infractions, diverting off the road and engaging with the locals. There’s a kidnapping. The guns and medical kit and stash of just-in-case cash he inventoried so carefully at the beginning of the trip are very much needed.
One of Dave Eggers’ bestselling books is 2006’s “What Is the What,” the autobiography of former Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng, written by Eggers and categorized as a novel. If Eggers called the nation in this new novel Sudan, it would have been a natural extension of that earlier work. That he does not, that it remains abstract, points to a different thread in his bibliography.
Eggers has been writing fiction that tells a story of America in our present moment, and often that moment is characterized by decline. “A Hologram for the King” (2012) told the story of a laid-off American bicycle executive who had one last chance to save his middle-class life by selling preposterous tech to Saudi Arabia and “The Circle” (2013) was a prescient story of a young everywoman who climbs to star status in a Facebook-like company, to disastrous results. “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” (2014) was framed as dialogues between a troubled man and the victims he’s kidnapped, including a Space Shuttle astronaut. In “Heroes of the Frontier” (2015) a woman abruptly leaves for Alaska with her children when she shouldn’t; she isn’t affected by the state’s natural beauty, and instead witnesses a spate of massive wildfires. To environmental devastation, violence, the power of social media, the loss of the middle class, now we can add Americans abroad, over their heads.
As our storyteller, Four can be, unintentionally, darkly funny. After Nine exclaims about something outside their window, Four “wasn’t sure what Nine had found interesting. None of this was new,” and then describes a scene that not many American readers have witnessed in person. “Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war. The soda bottles full of diesel, lined up on the roadside and sold by shrunken grandmothers. The stray dogs and children holding babies. The diagonal plumes of faraway fires. The spent rifle shells. The teenagers wearing mirrored sunglasses and carrying unloaded AKs. The trucks delivering glittering things unseen for years in the region — air conditioners, file cabinets, undefiled windows, even stained glass for some foreign-funded church. The white trucks full of aid workers fretful or debauched.” And yet: “All around were scenes of reconstruction.”
Much of what they encounter as they proceed are hopeful locals who see what benefit the road will bring. Four goes to extraordinary lengths to try to complete the job — and in the end, that may be the journey’s greatest danger.
Knopf: 192 pp., $25.95
Kellogg is the former Books editor of the Times. She lives in Alabama.