Close your eyes and picture the American dream. At the turn of the millennium, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the scion of Yemeni immigrants, is growing up in a tiny one-bedroom San Francisco apartment sandwiched between two sex shops. Outside, the streets are mean: sirens shriek and so do residents, dealers deal in the open 24/7; the day his family moves in, Mokhtar sees a guy shitting on the hood of a Mercedes. By his early twenties he’s lucky to have a job as a lobby ambassador (that’s doorman to you) in a fancy tower block called Infinity B, even though the “arrhythmic” rattle of gentrification beyond the glass doors makes it hard to focus on his second attempt to get through Das Kapital. I’m guessing he doesn’t finish it this time either, because what comes next is the dreamy part, and to appreciate it fully you need to be on board with capitalism.
Against tremendous odds, Mokhtar finds a way to export high-end coffee out of Yemen. Soon a bunch of farmers and workers there are thriving as never before—aside, that is, from the American-made bombs the Saudis are raining down on them and the blockade that is causing dire shortages of food and medicine—and US consumers are learning something adorably non-drone-related about Mokhtar’s homeland. Returning to the Infinity for the end of his hero’s journey, he finally gets to see its spectacular interior by subletting a room on the thirty-third floor:
The city and all its glass—it was all inside the apartment. Just standing in that room would take a radical adjustment of one’s equilibrium. It was like standing on the wing of a plane.
Laughing and crying, with the writer Dave Eggers by his side, Mokhtar literally watches his coffee-laden ship come in.
The presence of Eggers—the author of this book, The Monk of Mokha (Knopf, $28.95)—helps explain the unlikely air of wry, wholesome sweetness that infuses Mokhtar’s adventures. A decade ago, Eggers began producing this sort of heavily researched narrative non-fiction alongside his more traditional novels, and he evidently takes seriously the line between the two. Monk includes an author’s note describing the hundreds of hours of interviews he conducted and his efforts to check Mokhtar’s version of events against other people’s. And yet you couldn’t quite call Eggers a realist. Such is his attraction to all-American decency that his oeuvre has so far spawned not one but two Tom Hanks vehicles. Even Zeitoun, probably his best book to date, a taut account of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and an indictment of US policy during the Bush era, suffers from a certain allergy to moral ambiguity. (Though perhaps it’s fairer to call it bad luck when one’s male lead—a family man who stayed behind during the storm rescuing neighbors in a canoe only to be wrongfully arrested as a terrorist—later attacks his wife with a tire iron.)
There was an uncomfortable dissonance between the cheerful tone of Monk and my own overriding feeling while reading it, which was a dread akin to that I might feel on seeing a child totter into oncoming traffic. Or the kind you might feel were I to announce at this juncture that I’ve decided to head over to Yemen to start a little import-export business. Granted, I don’t speak Arabic, have no local connections, and lack the persuasive fast talk that Mokhtar picked up in the Tenderloin, where “if you sounded ignorant, you got taken.” But then Mokhtar doesn’t always inspire the reader’s confidence, either: like a cartoon innocent abroad, he’s the kind of guy who will inadvertently drop a loaded handgun into a bag of coffee beans before mailing it to Ethiopia. Initially ignorant of the ancient history of Yemeni coffee, he seems wonder-struck to discover that coffee grows out of the ground at all.
This zany naïveté must be intentional on Eggers’s part, and probably on Mokhtar’s too. Like the preppy Rupert Bear clothing he adopted as a teenager to smooth his way with the adults around him, it ensures that even nervous readers will embrace our impoverished Muslim protagonist. Many pages of cutesy high jinks go by before Eggers introduces anything too difficult or potentially threatening, such as Mokhtar’s unspoken irritation at Infinity residents who brag about their expensive china or have “lewd sexual conversations” in the lobby, and his sense that having to leap smilingly to his feet and open the door for every person who enters, rather than simply push the button by his desk, is “a self-evident outrage and an assault on his pride.”
Here is the business end of the American dream. As well as giving hope to immigrant families crammed into one-bedrooms, it reassures those who have already made (or inherited) it that their doorman, waiter, or driver has no reason to seethe with resentment: he’s en route to the big time, if he wants it enough. In other words, this dream often relies on an impressive degree of bad faith, obliviousness, or both. The same applies tenfold to America’s relationship with the rest of the world, and it’s almost as if Eggers wants to illustrate as much when he describes Mokhtar heading for Yemen all aglow about his startup. Naturally, Mokhtar, as a Yemeni American, has some awareness of the region’s troubles and the United States’ role in them. (He even joins a Yemeni-American group invited to visit the White House in 2011 after the Arab Spring, though the awkward “matter of the drone strikes was one that the delegation couldn’t agree on how to address,” so they leave that out of their speech.) Given this knowledge, and the State Department’s travel warnings, it’s remarkable how taken aback he seems when his plan to roam around the country in a caravan with two Western coffee experts starts to look less than viable.
Leaving Yemen with his beans in 2015 proves tricky after Saudi bombs destroy the airport in Sanaa, amid clashes between Houthi and government forces and attacks by Al Qaeda. Luckily, though, he talks his way out of a hostage situation, escapes on a skiff across the Red Sea, and hightails it, in the nick of time, to a trade conference in Seattle. Once we’re safely back in the United States, it takes some emotional acrobatics to sympathize with Mokhtar’s troubles running his fledgling business. Eggers sees the problem: “The UN considered Yemen on the brink of famine. No one was prioritizing the export of coffee to international specialty roasters.?.?.?. It was difficult sometimes to see all this as essential.” Still, he explains, Mokhtar has to get that coffee out of the country because “there was a lot of money at stake.” Mokhtar has investors now, and gosh darn it, he can’t let them down!
My interpretation of Mokhtar as a specifically American hero is evidently the intended one. US citizens like him “bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome,” Eggers writes, before closing his prologue with a rousing call to arms about
a blended people united not by stasis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward, always forward, driven by courage unfettered and unyielding.
That’s some “authentic frontier gibberish” all right (to quote Blazing Saddles), but I’m struck especially by the phrase “irrational exuberance,” more usually associated with housing and tech bubbles whose sudden burstings have disastrous consequences. Eggers seems to mean it in a good way, but that isn’t how it reads to me.
The NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey takes a darker view of inner-city childhoods. Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence (W. W. Norton, $26.95) reexamines the evidence for the dramatic drop in violent crime in so many American cities after the 1990s. He credits it in part to concerted efforts by local organizations such as Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and Alianza Dominicana, in New York, as well as to more troubling factors, like aggressive policing. Sharkey often puts his readers in quite a bind: he’ll note that some tactic is “controversial” but that the numbers suggest it worked—in which case, wouldn’t we agree that fewer deaths and assaults is a good thing? It’s not just the Wall Street swells now fearlessly walking their dalmatians in Central Park at ten o’clock (though he does give that example). While those who’ve lived for many years in the D.C. neighborhood of Shaw may, he concedes, be “justifiably concerned” about the yuppie restaurants taking over, “two decades ago the same residents of Shaw were worried about being shot while shopping for groceries.” Public schools, he writes, are safer now. Where levels of violent crime have fallen the most, the class and racial gaps in educational achievement appear to have narrowed. Life expectancy has increased for African-American men, and though their fear of assault by the police may be unabated, at least their fear of one another has eased.
One unnerving aspect of Sharkey’s book is its breezy, whatever-works attitude to the question of how neighborhoods are “improved,” and who pays for it. His understandably romantic view of community extends to its more corporate-sponsored forms. There are the business improvement districts patrolled by private security firms in Los Angeles, which have reduced crime such that the companies funding them are, “in effect, using their private resources to provide a public good.” And there are “community quarterback” philanthropists like the Atlanta real estate tycoon Tom Cousins, who poured cash into the East Lake neighborhood, as well as its ruined golf course, and is now trying to scale that experiment with some millionaire pals under the sinister-sounding name of Purpose Built Communities. “There was controversy along the way,” Sharkey admits of the East Lake project, “and some of the original residents had their lives uprooted against their will.” Nonetheless, he continues, “the central lesson .?.?. is not about a white philanthropist, an exclusive golf course, the demolition of public housing, or the establishment of charter schools.” (It’s-not-about-this-but-about-that is a bit of a Sharkey tic.) The real lesson is that sustained investment is the only way to change anything, and Sharkey ends his book on the thought that if, as seems likely, the federal government doesn’t want to open its coffers, private money may prove the best hope for American cities.
Yet the awkward, contradictory situation he describes, in which extreme poverty remains and inequality increases but public space is much safer for rich people and the businesses they patronize—that’s not an accident; it’s called getting what you paid for. The fact that the most disadvantaged (those who’ve managed to avoid incarceration, that is) have also benefited from a less violent environment, and have at times benefited more, since things were so much worse for them beforehand—that seems to me the real unintended consequence. There are obvious reasons why certain private entities might find it worth a considerable outlay to, say, turn parts of Los Angeles from a danger zone into a tourist-friendly playground. Having achieved that, it’s not clear why they’d keep spending without hope of further reward—or rather, why they could be persuaded to do out of goodwill what the government won’t. Still, easy for me to say.
What’s strange is that Sharkey occasionally appears to share my other, less fair prejudice against his book, which has to do with a perhaps inevitable problem of form. Here and there he expresses frustration at the limitations of social science, a wish to “make the statistics on crime and violence more human. Violent crime is about bodies torn apart and disfigured, about mothers and friends crying out, and about bloodstained city streets.” Glancing wistfully in the direction of neuroscience, he soon finds (or I did) that talk of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine doesn’t help much. Maybe, he seems to suggest at one point, we should put his number-crunching, bet-hedging book down and watch the video of a teenage boy’s murder instead. But Sharkey does now and then hit on an arresting image. Inspired by a study of “predator stress,” he asks, “If rats perform worse when they’re exposed to a nearby cat, what happens to children if they are assessed just days after a homicide down the street?” This is not a question that needs answering, but it is, unfortunately, one that sticks in the mind.
Novelists have several advantages over social scientists—especially in the study of poverty, violence, fear, the longing for escape—and in A State of Freedom (W. W. Norton, $25.95), Neel Mukherjee exercises all of his to the full. The book is in part an artful homage to one of V. S. Naipaul’s most surprising works, In a Free State. Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood) from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense) and feeds his readers only the richest pieces. Where Eggers pastes a manic grin over the increasingly evident and brutal contradictions of Western liberal centrism (and Sharkey apologetically shrugs that there is no alternative), Mukherjee looks straight at the ugliest parts of an unequal society and uses what he finds to construct something beautiful.
The book is divided into five stylistically disparate parts—ranging from an urbane first person to omniscient narration to hurtling stream of consciousness—that look in on tangentially connected lives. A man brings his six-year-old back to India from the United States for a visit that turns dark and dreamlike, filled with disturbing animal omens and other people’s poverty and abjection, at which he feels “horror, shame, pity, embarrassment, repulsion.” Returning from London to stay with his parents in Mumbai, another man finds himself subtly tied in knots about the servants: he judges his well-to-do parents for their unenlightened views yet continually encounters his own desire to enjoy the fruits of his position even while disavowing it. Two village girls are separated when one of them must leave school to work as a maid; the other takes up with a Maoist guerrilla group.
While several characters live in shacks or slums, a tall building not unlike Mokhtar’s Infinity tower makes cameo appearances, a hotel “like a box of stone and glass some giant bird dropped on its flight.” Like the Infinity’s doormen, the men who construct this building never get to see what it looks like inside. The contrast here is stark and unforgiving, unleavened by the fantastical meritocracy of Mokhtar’s story, in which poverty never seems to preclude finding someone to lend you a few grand if you’ve got a good enough idea. From its opening pages, Mukherjee’s narrative has an eerie, haunted quality. The most comfortable lives here are lived surrounded by disquieting, spectral presences. It’s an unaccustomed form of realism, one that captures much of what Eggers and Sharkey leave out.