Dave Eggers’ new nonfiction tale is about coffee and the American Dream


Prior to we talk about “The Monk of Mokha,” let’s take a moment to appreciate what Dave Eggers is not. Just after his 2000 memoir“A Heartbreaking Function of Staggering Genius became a hugely influential bestseller, Eggers could have effortlessly written the identical book more than and more than once again for the rest of his life. Or probably he may have degenerated into a single of these a single-hit-wunderkinds who only sometimes deign to challenge girthy novels about popular novelists experiencing midlife crises.

As an alternative, Eggers has spent the huge capital generated via his sudden literary celebrity on ceaseless experimentation. He’s written screenplays and children’s books and a spray of curious novels that really feel absolutely 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 children in a half-dozen cities. He is generous with his platform, sharing his fame with writers and causes who deserve higher consideration.

Eggers’ most exciting projects to date are the 3 biographies he has published about exceptional American stories. He started with “What Is the What” (2006), a semi-fictionalized account of a “Lost Boy of Sudan” named Valentino Achak Deng. He followed withZeitoun” (2009), the story of a Syrian American man who was wrongfully arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorism though selflessly assisting these in have to have 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 dilemma with functioning on true-life subjects, any biographer will inform you, is that they generally reside extended sufficient to let you down.)


Dave Eggers

(Taylor Hill/Getty Photos )

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. Even though he grew up chiefly in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — his very first memory of San Francisco, at age eight, is “of a man defecating on a Mercedes” — Alkhanshali as a young man lived for a time in his grandfather’s property in Yemen, which Eggers describes as “a nation much more misunderstood than probably any other.” A intelligent but undisciplined kid, Alkhanshali grew into a critical young man through his time in Yemen and returned to the United States with a bone-deep wish to make some thing of himself.

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When we meet Alkhanshali, he’s a doorman at the Infinity luxury condominiums, greeting residents and delivering passage to the abundant help employees that wealthy San Franciscans need to merely get by — the package-delivery people today, the pet nutritionists, the chandelier repairman. “The job, Mokhtar’s existence there, was a reminder that there have been these who lived in glass towers, and these who opened doors for them,” Eggers writes.

At the Infinity, Alkhanshali operates as witness and gatekeeper for the chasm of inequality that threatens to tear America apart. And there’s no query on which side of that chasm Alkhanshali belongs the doorman job had at a single time been unionized, but the union had been broken and Alkhanshali was earning a pittance — and grateful for it.

Coffee is the lever via which Alkhanshali would move the mighty American dream in his path.

Eggers characterizes this book as getting “chiefly about the American Dream, which is really a great deal alive and really a great deal below threat.” It is fundamentally a Horatio Alger story for the 21st century, although Alkhanshali characterizes his personal tale utilizing a much more modern day literary reference: “When Mokhtar was tired of getting poor, of stepping more than homeless addicts, of sleeping with six siblings in a single space, his thoughts drifted and permitted the possibility that possibly he was like Harry [Potter], element of this hardscrabble planet for now, but destined for some thing much more.”

Coffee is the lever via which Alkhanshali would move the mighty American dream in his path. Alkhanshali’s indoctrination into the centuries-old tradition of coffee culture carries the identical wonder for him that wizarding did for the young Potter.

In his early days of study, Alkhanshali learns that coffee was very first brewed by a Muslim monk and that Yemen was the cradle of coffee culture prior to economics and the capriciousness of history moved the business’ epicenter to Ethiopia. The middle of “Mokha,” when we study the history of coffee along with Alkhanshali, is by far the most exciting element of the book.

At its very best moments, ‘Mokha’ reads like a single of these obsessive journalistic explorations of a quotidian object—think John McPhee’s grand ‘Oranges.’

At its very best moments, “Mokha” reads like a single of these 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 normally bloomed after a year, and inside every fruit was the coffee bean. And the two halves of the bean have been what we generally 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.”

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That smaller fruit yields a single of the biggest, most consequential crops in the history of civilization. The history of coffee is a single of conquest and colonialization, of commerce and art. Men and women all through a great deal of recorded history have died for coffee, have devoted their lives to coffee, have been enslaved for coffee. Even in modern day instances, the coffee trade shapes the course of lives about the globe.

“Everywhere along the line there have been people today involved” with the production of coffee, Alkhanshali realizes, and pretty much each and every a single of these people today is exploited, from the farmers to the baggers to these unfortunate souls whose only job is “removing the sticky mucilage from every bean.” His significant notion, then, is to reclaim Yemen’s function as the coffee’s birthplace — to seduce upscale American buyers to the exclusive pleasures of Yemeni beans. His dream is to revitalize Yemen’s economy, and to do suitable financially by all these forgotten workers along the way, though nonetheless turning a tidy profit for himself and his loved ones.

The final third of “Mokha” is concerned with the procurement and delivery of Alkhanshali’s very first crop — a shipment of tons of beans — via a Yemen choked with civil war and battered by Saudi missile strikes. It is a cracking tale of intrigue and bravery and much more than a tiny bit of luck. (You can study an abbreviated corporate-biography version of the identical story on Alkhanshali’s web page, www.portofmokha.com.)

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At some points, Eggers appears a tiny also generous to the topic of his book. When confronted by racist, xenophobic antagonists, the Alkhanshali in the story is prone to rearing back and delivering great, righteous speeches that shame villains into realizing the error of their techniques. If Alkhanshali’s encounter with an Islamophobic safety guard at the Lincoln Memorial is correct, for instance — and it nicely could be — it nonetheless rings of fiction.

These moments are brusque reminders of the limits of inventive nonfiction. To create “Mokha,” Eggers performed hundreds of hours of interviews and traveled thousands of miles with Alkhanshali. But the book functions dozens of pages of dialogue that Eggers could not have heard and scenes that he did not personally witness. He is by no suggests impartial Alkhanshali is his pal, and the book is a celebration of that friendship. Eggers excels when he brings his sweeping novelist’s scope to the concerns that matter most to him — revenue inequality, the spoils of colonialization — and he stumbles when Alkhanshali’s tale demands a much more impartial witness.

But truly, each and every biography is a type of adore story in between the author and their topic. And if Eggers leans a bit also heavily on the more than-earnest mythologization of an American citizen with deep Yemeni roots through the disastrous Trump presidency, who — truly — could blame him? Eggers is utilizing his formidable literary powers and cachet to amplify the stories of victimized people today in a moment of crisis — and he’s carrying out so in the kind of a gripping, triumphant adventure story. If much more breakout literary sensations parlayed their celebrity into meaningful acts of citizenship, possibly children like Alkhanshali wouldn’t have to struggle fairly so difficult to discover a location in the planet.

Continuous is a critic in Seattle and co-founder of The Seattle Critique of Books.


“The Monk of Mokha” by Dave Eggers

(Knopf )

“The Monk of Mokha”

Dave Eggers

Knopf: 352 pp., $28.95