A plan to lay down a roadway runs into a few barriers in this parable of friendship and politics.
The pared-down style and global themes that Eggers has embraced since A Hologram for the King (2012)—he may be the only living American writer for whom the term “Hemingway-esque” meaningfully applies—have restricted him to writing two kinds of novels. Eggers the Compassionate Realist focuses on men and women forced to adapt to economic shifting sands (Hologram; Heroes of the Frontier, 2016); Eggers the Dour Lecturer focuses on social justice concerns in ways that smother his characters (The Circle, 2013). This short novel showcases the virtues of the former, though there's a whiff of pedagogy in the prose. Two men, Four and Nine, have been assigned to pave a road in an unnamed country recovering from civil war. Four is an experienced, by-the-book type, concerned only with meeting his deadline before a celebratory parade. Nine is a reckless newbie, neglecting cautions against eating local food, swimming in a local river, and carousing. Eggers doesn't play this for comedy, Odd Couple–style, not even a little; we’re mostly in Four’s increasingly infuriated mind, and we know that the country is unstable enough that Nine’s antics court serious consequences. But when it does, Eggers ably weaves in a host of ethical questions over one man’s responsibility to the other, what makes help transactional versus simply kind, and whether the road itself will truly “bring safety and progress to the provinces at seventy miles an hour.” The closing paragraphs of this short novel take an abrupt turn into Dour Lecturer territory, but the shift is earned; Eggers is determined to counter the notion that social and economic improvement work hand in hand, and Four and Nine ultimately resonate as characters as much as archetypes.
An unassuming but deceptively complex morality play, as Eggers distills his ongoing concerns into ever tighter prose.