Dave Eggers has become one of the most popular writers of the last few years. Having not read any of his books I was happy to pick this, his most recent book, up at the library and gave it a go.
The book tells the the story of Alan Clay. Clay is a 54 year old career salesman who has fallen on hard times. From Jonathan Franzen to Dave Eggers and everyone in between it seems that there are no characters in modern American literature that are confident and well. Perhaps that is because the truth is that a full bodied success is not as interesting. We like are characters to be broken, it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Alan Clay has problems. He is divorced and his ex wife is the definition of a shrew. His daughter attends a tony and expensive college and he loves her fiercely, wants to provide for her, but, with his financial setbacks, he does not have enough money for her next semester’s college tuition.
In an attempt to fix all this Alan has taken a job leading a consulting team for a company named Reliant. The company sends the team to Saudi Arabia to, hopefully, gain a contract to provide all things technological for a new city the King is building.
When Alan arrives in The Kingdom he is the leader of a group of younger workers who do not think too much of him. He knows that he gained the job primarily due to a previous friendship with the King’s nephew, the younger workers do as well. Upon arriving in Jeddah much of their time is spent waiting around doing nothing. With a large building mostly unoccupied they are placed in a tent outside the office building to set up their presentation. They have no internet thus making it all but impossible to begin their work. Making things even worse they are told their is no timetable for when the King will arrive for the presentation, they will learn of his pending arrival when he arrives, no advance notice will be given. Still for Alan all the downtime has advantages. He meets a woman from Denmark working in the office building next to his luxurious tent, a Saudi Doctor who helps Alan deal with a ball sized growth at the top of his spine and most importantly a local man named Yousef who becomes Alan’s unofficial tour guide to all things Saudi.
It seems that everything in Saudi Arabia is a mystery, nothing is as it seems and while everyone espouses the rules no one follows them. As Alan spends his days doing little more than waiting on the arrival of The King he reflects on his life, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and his general feelings of incompetence in dealing with the world. As he becomes friends with Yousef and as Yousef becomes his wingman he meets his new friends father, sees his home village, and even helps strangers met along the road build a cement wall. An act that of itself that seems of little import but to Alan has overwhelming significance, something lasting on this mission of dubious purpose.
The turning point for Alan and his relationship with his new friend comes when he goes on a wolf hunt with Yousef and some of the villagers from his hometown. The wolf is a menace to a local farmers sheep and Alan, feeling thrilled to be part of a group, is sure he will be the one to bring it down.
Soon thereafter Alan arrives at work to discover that the King is on his way. Having had power finally for a couple of days the presentation is done and everything goes perfectly. Alan soon learns, however, that in Saudi Arabia nothing is as it seems and in everything there are layers of the onion that you never know exist.
The book was good, one felt for the characters. Alan is likable and recognizable for many of us. I felt that the relationship that Alan has with his father is very easy to relate to. Alan’s decisions in his corporate success have been symptomatic of the withering and hollowing of American business. His father, a long time union man, has never failed to point out to him that Alan and his companies planted the seeds of their own destruction when they attempted to make more and increasing profits by abandoning both their workers and their principles. It is a a cautionary tale for any businesses that today send jobs overseas and considers the lessening of labor costs as the one and only key to success.
The ending is not perfect, one looking for a crisp, clean, perfect resolution will be disappointed. It does however fit with the story as a whole. Eggers writes very well, his point of view is discernible, the character of Alan is well drawn and far from one dimensional. There are a whole generation of Americans that have and are living Alan’s life experience in today’s world of globalization. While reading Alan’s story might not be pleasant it will certainly seem familiar. This book surprised me, it is much better than I expected it to be.