The Mind of Dwayne Hoover: What is the What

This is the first entry in “The Mind of Dwayne Hoover”. If you’re wondering what that means, check out the introductory post I put up a couple days ago. Enjoy!

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

What is the What is the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Displaced from his home by the civil war in Sudan he spent several years in refugee camps before being relocated to the United States. The book is a fictional biography, so it is designated a novel, but most of the events happened in the life of Valentino Achak Deng. The story is told in two threads, the first is his account of a burglary which happens in Atlanta where he has been relocated. Throughout the burglary, the assault that accompanies it, and his subsequent trip to the hospital, Valentino mentally tells his story to the people he encounters. The purpose of his telling changes from person to person but the common thread is the explanation that though he may seem like he does not belong or fit inhere in this country he has endured hardships which easily trump what he is dealing with now.

The story he tells is of his wandering as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan after his village is overrun and destroyed as a result of Sudan’s civil war. On his journey he witnesses atrocities, starvation, and the harshness of the African wilderness. I’m not of a huge fan of documentaries or non-fiction, so this is probably a reflection of my personal preference, rather than a literary criticism, but these recountings were the parts of the book I could take or leave. It wasn’t that they were too graphic. Rather, it just seemed like so many pages were devoted to showing how horrible the conditions were when a select few of the anecdotes could have served just as well. However, there was certainly more to the story than the recounting of Deng’s hardships in Africa and the U. S.

Deng grew up in a village in southern Sudan populated by people of the Dinka tribe (whose most famous member is former NBA player Manute Bol). Achak’s father tells the story of the What. When God created the first Dinka he was offered the choice betwixt a cow and the What. The first Dinka saw that the cow would provide him with a renewable source of meat and milk and almost everything he would need for survival in southern Sudan. So he chose the cow and from then on the Dinka people were herdsmen who relied on the cow for their livelihood. Of course, his father relays this story as evidence of the superior intellect of the Dinka. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of the unknown What, he chose the sensible choice which he knew would provide for him and his people. This choice however, doesn’t satisfy everyone’s natural curiosity. Every time the story is told it is followed by the question that is the title of the book, “What is the What?”

Over the course of his displacement from his village and his long, arduous walk to Ethiopia, Achak is thrust into the unknown. His village and family are gone, possibly forever. Old friends from his previous life appear and disappear only to reinforce the fact hat everything he previously knew is now uprooted and set adrift in this new, frightening, violent world.

We are told about this hardship as we are also learning of Valentino’s struggles in America, where he is robbed and beaten by strangers who have forced their way into his apartment. Even after his escape from Sudan and the refugee camps of his childhood, he is still living in an unfamiliar world, with new dangers he has never faced and could not anticipate.

This is the answer to the question. This is the What. The unknown, the unsafe, the unfamiliar are all what the man in his father’s parable turned away from in favor of the safe, docile life of a herdsman. This is no longer an option for Valentino Achak Deng. He has been thrust into the What and he must learn to succeed while he is playing by rules he is picking up as he goes along.

It’s not all bad. Throughout the book, Deng meets many people, from his sponsors in the United States to aid workers in refugee camps, who help him toward success and allow him to bring some certainty into his otherwise uncertain journey. Therein lies the allure of the What. It represents not only uncertainty, but also opportunity. Over and over the Lost Boys are told that they are the future of Sudan. They have been afforded opportunities that have never been available to other Sudanese children. This story is an account of one of those boys coming to terms with this realization while surrounded by the upheaval of a civil war which has plagued his home for most of his lifetime.

This was the first book I have read by Dave Eggers, and I enjoyed the reading. Although the subject matter wasn’t exactly my favorite, the story was a very good one. It was a little bit longer than I thought it needed to be, but there was no point at which I was laboring through the book. Overall, I would recommend the book if you haven’t already read it. If you have read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!