By Kevin Dugan
Valentino Achak Deng was about eight years old when, in the middle of the night, he watched a lion jump out of the Sudanese brush and eat a boy named Ariath.
Valentino didn't know the boy, but they were united as "Lost Boys," children orphaned by the Sudanese genocide, who had been walking hundreds of miles towards safety in Ethiopia. His 18-year-old group leader, Dut, commanded him and the others to sit down and shut up lest the beast attack again. Soon after, a second boy ran off, only to find his neck caught between the lion's jaws. When the lion had its fill, the boys dusted themselves off and continued walking in silence, as they had been for weeks.
There are plenty of books that recount the horrors of Sudanese survivors, but Dave Eggers' phenomenal new novel What is the What goes beyond education. All proceeds go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America, rebuilds southern Sudan and funds Deng's college tuition.
What is a partly fictionalized first-person account of the real-life Valentino from the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983 to the present. Most of the plot focuses on him in transit from one safe haven to another, only to find misfortune when he is promised relief. However, even when he is running from falling bombs, getting betrayed by the army sent to protect him, or defending his apartment from muggers in Atlanta, his outlook is as humble as it is complex. There are no "good guys" here, no one you can easily root for, and even the worst of them are saved from easy demonizing.
For those turned off by Eggers' previous novels, such as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocity, you won't find the same pretentious postmodern posturing in this prose. Eggers sheds his own distinctive voice and convinces the reader that they are reading the story of an optimistic young refugee. That trick alone is worth the price of the book, but what makes this truly special is the emotional weight of nearly every line. Yes, Valentino tells tragedies that can make your jaw drop, but this reviewer walked away from What feeling that he has just as much humor to spread around.
Rating: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius