Books I’ve read on the beach that have appeared on this blog:

Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Prose

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchet

And now, add: What is the What by Dave Eggers.

I started it three weeks ago while visiting friends in Pittsburgh and then had no choice but to finish it the next weekend on the beach in Miami. Sure, I guess I could have taken a hiatus to read something more beach appropriate—like, well, anything in the entire world—but I was too in love with the protagonist, Valentino Achak Deng, to leave him behind. So, I sat there on beautiful white sand, staring out at the serene Atlantic Ocean, flanked by outrageous hotels and tanned bodies, reading about death, destruction, dissapointment and civil war. Let me tell you, it put my own little sob story—having come down with the flu right before vacation—in perspective.


What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudan-native and Atlanta-transplant. At the age of seven, his village comes under siege by a horrifying militia and he is forced to escape. He becomes part of the Lost Boys, who travel through the most punishing terrain imaginable, across three countries, to finally find relative safety in Kenya. Not knowing what has become of his family, knowing way too much about what has become of many of his friends—eaten by lions and crocodiles, vaporized by government bombers, shot by women posing as mothers, killed by disease, hunger and exhaustion—he perseveres to reach the refugee camp, where he lives for years. He even flourishes when he arrives there, becoming one of the few Sudanese to acquire a paid job organizing youth. When he finally is relocated to Atlanta, a reader might imagine that his life would improve. Without giving much away about the plot, the near relentless stream of tragedies in his life do not abate in the States. Throughout the book, the United States fails him, and many of his Sudanese compatriots, in almost unimaginable ways. What makes it bearable to read, though, is Valentino’s attitude–at times he, of course, deals with rage and crushing sadness, but he also manages to remain hopeful.

This book is, officially, a novel. But, it is not a “Dave Eggers novel,” not in the way one would expect having read other works in his opus. His voice is entirely subsumed by Mr. Deng’s voice. (I have to say, this one might deserve the title of his first, most famous work—at least the first half of its title—more than that work did). What is the What is subtitled The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, and it is entirely his story. Not being a writer, he was put in touch with Dave Eggers, to whom he communicated his story—they even traveled to the Sudan together—and with that material, Mr. Eggers created this novel. Because Mr. Deng was so young when this whole situation was put in motion, he can not possibly remember all the details accurately, so, although the spirit and major events of the story are true-to-life, it had to be dubbed a work of fiction.

Although it’s not his story, Mr. Eggers’ hand is not absent in the book. He developed a way of telling the story that I found very effective. The narrative is told in the first person, switching between in-scene accounts of Mr. Deng’s treacherous travels in Africa in the past, his adventures as a new arrival in the States and his trials in the present. The transitions are made effortless by a fascinating story-telling device. Valentino in the present launches into stories of his past by mentally addressing them to other characters he encounters: an assailant, a small exploited child, an ER nurse, evangelist neighbors, etc. As a technique, it worked on several levels—not only did it help with transitions but it put Valentino’s past and present experiences in context, allowing for juxtapositions and echoes that wouldn’t otherwise be highlighted.

Sudan is even more in the news than usual right now, so I think it’s a great time to pick up What is the What. All the proceeds from the book’s sales go to Mr. Deng, who pumps them into charitable efforts in Sudan. I can’t say that you’ll enjoy the book, but it is an excellent read in its way.