Dave Eggers’ Comic Trump Parable Hits its Mark, but Not Too Hard
There’s something comforting about a parable.
The book takes place on the Glory, a mighty oceangoing vessel whose capable, kindly captain, having steered the ship and its passengers through all kinds of weather for many years, is heading down the gangplank toward a well-earned retirement.
His replacement? A scoundrel who hustles cheap souvenirs and hangs out near the stairs leading to the women’s locker room, angling for upskirt shots. He has no experience or interest in the ship’s workings, but he’s known to say any crude thing that pops into his head, and a number of the other passengers like that.
The new captain’s supporters include a gaggle of teenage boys, drawn to pranks and chants, and a “grandfather of nine who was in every way sensible and true”. But mostly they’re fellow bad guys: petty thieves, blackmailers, murderers…
He quickly finds an outlet in the ship cafeteria’s dry-erase board, replacing its usual menu and weather-related news with equally brief, and all-too-familiar feeling bluster:
PEOPLE WHO “RUN” ENGINES ARE YOUR ENEMIES
MY P-NUS: WOMEN HAVE ENJOYED!!
“He writes like I speak when I’m drunk,” one man observes, approvingly. The board also serves to disseminate his paranoid ravings about spiders, and threats–far from idle–to throw “certain people” overboard.
Eggers paints the unnamed Captain as a monstrous, incurious child, and strange to say, there are moments when one almost feels, well, a bit sorry for him.
Eggers masterfully invests this character with a hint of childlike vulnerability. The captain covets the epaulets of his office, but hiding under his bed so the spiders won’t get him, he understands that he’d feel a lot better if he had a cool, confident friend to show him the ropes.
None of this excuses the catastrophic consequences of his ignorance and self-regard, but it’ll keep you turning the pages of this little book all the way to the end. You’ll want to do that anyway, if only find out whether the voice emanating from the captain’s bedroom vent is an imaginary companion, or something more sinister.
It’s amusing, if not at all difficult, to identify the inspiration for certain characters, like the captain’s daughter, “a solid nine”.
Mercifully Eggers doesn’t bog himself down by counting every nose. The Captain is unmarried for instance, and has only the one child.
It’s almost cathartic to see cannier villains dwarf his taste for violence and chaos. There’s the ice-old Pale One, who looks so masculine shirtless, riding a horse onto the Glory’s deck, and the Man So Soft, who entertains visiting dignitaries with vast quantities of guacamole served in a hollowed-out corpse.
Some references clunk by being either too contemporary or too on-the-nose, like the World Wrestling Federation and a small time crook named Paul the Manafort. These small blemishes stand out because otherwise, Eggers’ embrace of the parabolic tone is so deft, and thus such a joy.
(Knopf, November 19, 2019)