If there is one strand that is unmistakably the essence of the works of Dave Eggers, it is new beginnings, starting over. Think the college senior who inherits his 8-year-old brother after the deaths of their parents in the memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Think the computer expert trapped at the nefarious Apple-like conglomerate in the novel “The Circle.” Think the suddenly single mother and her kids on an Alaskan road trip in Eggers’ latest novel, “Heroes of the Frontier.”
And, most assuredly, think of the young man on the fringes of the coffee industry in Eggers’ most recent work, the biographical “The Monk of Mokha.”
There’s a genuine sense of the American Dream about Mokhtar Alkhanshali. Yet, how can that be? Because Mokhtar is Yemeni-American, and his story is straight out of Horatio Alger. Well, not just Horatio Alger.
Born in San Francisco, Mokhtar lived in the rough Tenderloin district of the city. As a boy, he felt more of a kinship with Harry Potter, the subject of books he “borrowed indefinitely” from the public library: “When Mokhtar was tired of being poor, of stepping over homeless addicts, of sleeping with six siblings in one room, his mind drifted and allowed the possibility that maybe he was like Harry, part of this hardscrabble world for now, but destined for something more.”
For a while, that “something more” is being a clerk at Banana Republic or becoming a salesman for a Honda car dealership or working as a 25-year-old doorman at the Infinity, the San Francisco high-rise residence where he’s one of its designated “Lobby Ambassadors.”
Then he discovers the mythos of both Yemen and its coffee, declaring proudly to the woman in his life his American Dream to “resurrect the art of Yemeni coffee and restore it to prominence throughout the world.”
But, as he soon discovers, all dreams must be realized from a solid foundation. He’s been to Yemen, the sovereign state at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, only once, to visit his grandfather. He knows very little about coffee, its history, its cultivation, its roasting, its brewing. He studies to become a qualified “Q grader,” a person trained to judge the “quality” of a particular coffee.
He must also rally the Yemeni coffee farmers and gain their trust. He must raise money for a stake. And in some of the book’s most tense and harrowing passages, he must get the coffee to San Francisco, an AK-47 more often than not on his shoulder, despite the ongoing Yemeni political unrest. His journey is an adventure tantamount to Indiana Jones rescuing his treasures, and it’s for similar humanitarian reasons. If he succeeds, Mokhtar will enable Yemeni coffee farmers to make 30 percent more than they have ever made before.
Mokhtar, who, like Harry Potter, is indeed destined for greatness, never wavers. He’s a dreamer. He has pulled himself up by his bootstraps from absolutely humble beginnings. His reward, and ours, comes in the book’s exhilarating finale, observed atop the high-rise inside which Mokhtar Alkhanshali used to be a lowly worker. Truly, the only element missing is the swell of music in the background.
In the hands of Dave Eggers, “The Monk of Mokha” is hardly a dry history of coffee. It is legend and myth. It is an adrenaline-charged thriller. It is a subtle cry for tolerance. Most importantly, it is a reminder that the American Dream can still be realized, every once in a while, in the most astonishing ways.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.