Ego trip

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers <em>Picador, 375pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 06848

Dave Eggers is, this year at least, the wonder boy of American letters. He started out as an editor of a small satirical magazine called Might, then worked briefly as an editor on Esquire, before quitting to found the lauded literary quarterly McSweeney's. At the age of 29, he wrote this book - his affecting, if absurdly titled, memoir, which begins with an account of watching first his father die of lung cancer and then his mother die of stomach cancer within five weeks of each other. With his elder sister and eight-year-old brother, Eggers moves to San Francisco. There he begins an existence of giddy, parent-free gaiety, while at the same time looking after his bewildered brother, with whom he unites against the world. "We are attacking California," he writes.

Any thoughtful criticism has been handily anticipated by the author. He tells us which sections are strongest and which are less so, and why. Reading the book can feel like listening to a good ad-lib comedian as he lurches, hitting notes both high and low, backing out of a weak joke with an exaggerated self-consciousness that is itself part of the joke. Except that most of the jokes are dancing on top of something particularly dark.

One of the marvels of this book is the way in which the situation - a 21-year-old suddenly in the role of both orphan and parent - melds with being young in San Francisco in 1993. "I felt so detached sometimes, went for weeks at a time without really being around people my age," Eggers writes. But being around people his own age isn't much easier. The usual problems with women are made more acute by his domestic situation, his fear of babysitters and his desperation to be with his group of friends, to have a drink and be "normal" with them on his one free night a week.

He describes how he and his friends set up Might, and recreates an atmosphere of bohemian days spent in awful offices, the punishing hours, the hilarity and twentynothing goofiness. But death is right there above everything; death is everywhere. Out walking on the beach, Eggers is hassled and wonders: "Is this how people die?" A colleague falls from a deck and goes into a coma. "Maybe I want a dead friend without having a friend who dies," another friend tells Eggers, as if a little more tragedy is what he needs.

In the most moving scene in the book, there is a conversation between Eggers and his brother. In fact, you quickly realise, Eggers is talking to himself, because the voice of the young boy is absurdly mature: "You have been determined then and since to get this down, to render this time, to take that terrible winter and write with it what you hope will be some heartbreaking thing."

A remarkably nimble piece of work, this book carries you along on a wave of pranks and ironies, fears and ambitions - a bit like playing a perfect game of frisbee over the graves of your loved ones.

William Georgiades is a former editor of the New York style magazine Black Book

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