On Feb. 17, I ventured out to Snooky’s Restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to see about Dave Eggers. For weeks, the press had been tracking Mr. Eggers and his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius . I was intrigued. I knew Mr. Eggers was 29, well connected and edited a quirky literary magazine, called McSweeney’s . But who hires go-go dancers to entertain the crowd at Barnes & Noble and then rents a bus and driver to cart off 50 people to a bar near Newark Airport, as Mr. Eggers had done two days before?
I also knew that Mr. Eggers shuns earnestness and likes giving the world’s phoniness what for. Still, he chose to write about how, his senior year in college, he lost both parents to cancer, and subsequently had guardianship of his 8-year-old brother, Toph. I had not yet read the book all the way through. But if his book was as good as the critics were saying, why all the bells and whistles?
I arrived at Snooky’s, across from the Community Bookstore, which was hosting the event, at 7:15 for a 7:30 reading. People had been waiting around since 6 P.M.
About 150 people were in the room, average age 25. I made my way past a guy who once worked for The New Yorker and now worked for McSweeney’s , whom I knew, or thought I knew, until I said hello and he gave me the cold shoulder. At which point I figured I had become persona non grata when this newspaper printed the only unfavorable review thus far of Mr. Eggers’ book.
At 7:45, Catherine Bohne, manager of the Community Bookstore, introduced Mr. Eggers. He ambled into view, took off his jacket and began to shuffle behind a microphone. “These are my papers for tonight. I’m going to be reading from them.” His blue eyes patrolled the room. “Hi, how are you? How are you all feeling tonight?”
After a bit of back and forth about the new issue of McSweeney’s , Mr. Eggers explained about the field trip following the reading. The first 50 people to ask for a ticket would be spirited by bus to a SoHo art gallery exhibiting paintings done by elephants.
First reading was from The Fuzz , a publication written by Mr. Eggers’ brother, Toph. Toph is now in high school. “This got him in a lot of trouble,” Mr. Eggers said. “I’m gonna need a volunteer.”
Mr. Eggers and Sarah Vowell, a friend of Mr. Eggers’, read a dialogue between a high school student and a headmaster. Mr. Eggers read, “I’ll be minding my own business, but every so often someone starts getting up in my grill.” The audience laughed.
Soon it was time for Mr. Eggers to read from his book. He introduced his friend Brent Hoff, who would be accompanying on guitar. He then asked for people to call out page numbers.
Mr. Hoff began to strum “Boys Don’t Cry” as Mr. Eggers turned to page 43. This was the beginning of Chapter 2, where he and Toph are driving along the California coast. “Is that the right key?” Mr. Eggers turned to Mr. Hoff. “That’s not my key.” There was some readjustment. “And a 1, 2, ready … 1, 2, 3 …” He began: “Please look. Can you see us, can you see us, in our little red car?”
Soon, another page number, a new volunteer. A woman and Mr. Eggers read the scene where he is auditioning for a part on the MTV program The Real World . Mr. Hoff played “Just Like Heaven.”
After a while, the energy in the room had flagged. “This is getting kinda dark,” Mr. Eggers said. “You don’t care if I don’t read more of that book, do you?”
He reached for a stack of large white storyboards bound with ring binders.
“I’m going to read a story from seventh grade,” Mr. Eggers said. “It’s called ‘Hassenframer’s Journey.’”
“Hassenframer,” he read, “was a very lonely monster. He lived alone in a house with a bag of riches.” In the end, Hassenframer winds up with friends and no riches. People smiled.
During the question period, a woman asked: “Did you want to get well known so you could read your seventh-grade stories to people?”
“Yes, of course, like anyone else, that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Signing time arrived. I went up to the podium to get a better look.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked a young woman.
A 22-year-old woman approached him. “I’ve never been to a book signing,” she said. She and Mr. Eggers had a short conversation in low tones.
Mr. Eggers jiggled his leg. He twisted a hand around his wrist. I approached the woman after she had left the table. Clearly, Mr. Eggers’ book had made a difference in her life.
After she left, Ms. Bohne from the bookstore came over to tell me that Mr. Eggers wanted me to leave. Either that, or stop scribbling near the signing table.
Once the table was clear, I approached the author in a spirit of neutral good will. “Hey-”
“I don’t like your newspaper,” he said. He elaborated at length. Several people stood within earshot. I decided not to listen. I went down to the sidewalk. Then I walked back upstairs.
Mr. Eggers was standing, a little scowly-eyed, with his editor and the bookstore people. Suddenly, silence.
“Am I interrupting?” I said.
“Well, we were just talking,” Mr. Eggers’ editor said.
Mr. Eggers said, “No one I know reads your newspaper.”
Mr. Eggers complained that the writer who had reviewed his book for The Observer had a conflict of interest. “We sent you a letter. You didn’t even print it.”
We had, the day before, I told him.
“What are you doing back here, anyway?”
“For my own sanity.”
“Well, I hope you’ll be fair,” he mumbled.
The next day, Mr. Eggers wrote about me on the McSweeney’s Web site. “One strange and unfortunate thing: At this particular reading, there was in attendance a reporter from a small weekly newspaper in New York read by advertising and real estate professionals, and some who work in the media …
“The problem was, on this particular night, this reporter was hovering, just behind the signing table, busily scribbling into her notebook much of what she could glean from the conversations between reader and writer …
“It’s very hard to express how unsettling it all was. Such a contrast, between these kind and open people, talking about the sorts of things they were talking about, and this reporter person, without good intentions, preying upon them. It was very creepy. Wow was it creepy.”
Mr. Eggers, it seemed to me, had assumed a great deal about my intentions. Nonetheless, I had been impolite. And I regret that.
Out on Union Street, 15 people were waiting for Mr. Eggers to join them for the outing to the art gallery. On his Web posting, Mr. Eggers explained: “The problem was, when we all left the reading and waited outside for the bus, that bus did not arrive. Ever.”
I went home by cab.
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