Thursday, June 11, 2009

What Is The What Book Review - or - Please Enjoy This Book

I finished my book. What is the What, by Dave Eggers. It’s an account of a Sudanese boy, Valentino Achek Deng, in the middle of a bloody civil war between the Northern and Southern halves of Sudan. He “walks”, with thousands of other boys, across 800 miles of Sudan wilderness and away from the slaughter of his family, friends, and culture. He walks away from the Sudanese government as it tries to destroy him. He walks away from the Sudanese People Liberation Army as they try to recruit him for the simple purpose of haphazardly tossing him into the fray to soak up bullets. He walks from refugee camp to refugee camp, losing what little sense of what a real home is with every step. He is followed by death, pursued by it, almost to the point of being doomed to bring death with him wherever he goes. Everywhere he looks, everywhere he steps, someone is dead, or dying, or doomed to die for no reason at all. There is destruction, there is deception, there is misery, and there is seemingly endless suffering. I read this book very slowly. It demanded more attention than any other book I have read. I would read one hundred pages on one of my days off, then I would put the book down for a week or two just so that I could processes the events in it’s pages. There is no plot per say to this book; it is more an account of events, which start with the destruction of his village and the slaughter of it’s inhabitants, and from there gets darker and darker and darker. At times, it seemed like reading this book was no more than an exercise in suffering; how many more ways can I read about children starving to death on the road side; being shot at by perceived allies; being ripped apart by bombs, mines, lions, and machine guns? How many friends must this insect of boy lose in order for this book to finish? Although there is never a break from the sensation of complete loss that this story invokes, there are beautiful moments along the way. There are characters that made me smile, events that lifted me up, and moments of hope that inspired me to keep reading. A sharp stab in the gut quickly followed these events as the suffering continues to compound upon Achek. I found myself holding my breath, gasping in horror, shaking my head and murmuring, “Good God,” to myself while reading. This story is hard to take. It does not let up. It does not provide a chance to “catch your breath and find beauty in the world” as so many fluffy books I’ve read do. It is raw. It is harsh. It drags you though the gravel and broken glass. It crushes your bones and makes your skin crawl. It tests your limits for compassion. It can break any believer’s faith in God as it tests Achek’s faith openly and bluntly. It will break you down and not build you back up, that part is up to you when you close the cover. It made me weep, honestly, and I haven’t cried in many many years. It is an amazing book. Simply amazing.

I usually don’t tell people this. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem important for other people to know, but it is important for my family and me. In 1997, my parents sponsored an African boy, a refugee named Kay. He was my age, maybe a year or two older. I was at College when he moved in, and only knew him by name when I first met him that winter in my driveway. He didn’t speak English very well at first, and would always add an “ee” sound at the end of every word. “I like-ee dat.” He looked foreign and unlike any other black man I had ever met, but he had a smile that would take over his entire face. It would make anyone around him smile along with him. Kay’s story came to me in a patchwork from him, my parents, and others who helped and befriended him. This is what I’ve come to know about Kay.

I believe he was from Sudan, or some other war torn country in Africa. When civil war broke out in his country and spilled into his hometown, his mother sent him away. His father was already gone at this point; he was either killed or he abandoned the family, I’m not sure which. Kay’s mother could not provide for him and all of his brothers and sisters, so he left and, I assume, walked to Somalia. I don’t know if he witnessed the slaughter of the civil war, but I wouldn’t doubt that he did, as it seems the whole of central Africa starting ripping itself apart with machine guns. In Somalia, he stowed away abort a boat which was headed to Europe. The captain found him hiding in a cargo hold, sleeping against the hull, with no possessions and no food. They had been at sea for quite a few days when Kay was found. The captain took pity on him and put him to work scrubbing the inside of the hull. When they got to Europe, France I believe, the captain agreed to take Kay to Canada. Again, Kay worked on the boat in secrecy in exchange for food and passage. I’m not sure if he was given a bed. He lived in Montreal for a little over a year and decided he wanted to make his way to the US before winter. He was stopped at the border of Vermont. He had no passport, no papers, no ID, no visa, no reason for entering the US. He was not allowed in. He was not turned around and sent back to Montreal. He was not given an option to contact anyone. Instead, he was handcuffed, put in a car, and sent to a prison in Vermont. He spent a month in jail for trying to cross the border with no papers. That’s when my parents heard about him through a family friend, a Winthrop, as in a direct relative of the Mayflower Winthrops. My parents, along with the Winthrops and many of their other friends, are social activists, righting the world in tiny, tiny, tiny steps. This was a big one. Kay moved into the room across from my old room. I was in college, hundreds of miles away, as was my brother, and there was plenty of space in my folk’s house. They had hosted guests and visitors before, some formal, some political, some thrust upon them by me, all of whom where grateful for their hospitality. Kay was no exception. He enrolled in Montpelier High School, where my then girlfriend met him and, along with the entire MHS field hockey team, befriended him. He would run with the girls during their practices, smiling his huge smile while running backwards, and say to them, “I like-ee run!” My parents sent me photos of Kay’s birthday at their house. He is smiling and staring a huge cake, covered in candles. The first time I met him was in my parent’s driveway. It was snowing in Vermont. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He smiled his huge toothy smile. We would go for walks around the neighborhood and have splintered conversations due to my constant THC buzz and his broken English. It was understood that his life had been exceedingly hard up to that point and that he was grateful to have made it to my parents house, even though he hated winter. I told him at one point that I was happy to be his friend. He taught me how to say, “can I have a beer, please?” in Swahili. Nah Mah Bee-ah Tafa Dali.

Kay is now married and has three children. He lives in Burlington, Vermont and periodically drops in on my parents for a surprise visit. He calls me from their house and pretends to be the police, which is hilarious due to his deep accent and the caller ID telling me it’s my parents. We laugh and he tells me he is happy. He has never shown anything but happiness to me. He has proved to me that he is unbreakable.

His wife’s cousin, a childhood neighbor I had barely known growing up but fell head over heels for during a MHS reunion, captured my attention for a spell almost three years ago. She is the one who gave me What is the What during our brief, and ultimately heartbreaking, desire for each other. She mailed it to me and included a note that said, “Please enjoy this book.” I didn’t start reading it until our relationship was well past destroyed, and “enjoyed” is a tricky description for how I felt while reading the book, but there is no question that I am glad that I read it. This book put all of my heartbreak , all of the obstacles I have faced in life, and all of the challenges I deal with on a daily basis, into prospective. So, I will pass the message onto you, whether you are a stranger to me, or one of the many people I call a friend; whether you were once were a part of my life, continue to be a part of my life, will someday become a part of my life, or are completely removed from my life; who ever you are, please enjoy this book.


  1. An exceptional and very engaging review.

    You account of Kay and your relationship to him only intensifies story. Good show man!

  2. I'll check it out since the book is so meaningful to you, although I've heard quite enough of the horrors of war from that region to suffice for a lifetime.
    I still don't have a clue as to how your parents and the Winthrops managed to get the "paper and document"-less Kay out of prison. I guess it's irrelevant and I'm glad he found happiness after all he went through. His smile is almost as infectious as the mane you sport in that pic.
    Great post.. as usual.

  3. By the mane point I mean the bacteria and lice.. I hope you got that Obsy. It's literally infectious ;)

  4. I may have to put the book on my "to read" list, but I have to space out my "heavy" books pretty far. I read "Johnny Got His Gun" back in 2003. I may be able to do What Is The What by 2013.

    PS - loving hippie Obsquatch in that photo ;-D

  5. Astounding. I heart you and this review. I'm adding the book to the reading list.