“The Monk of Mokha” By Dave Eggers (Knopf, 327 pp., $28.95)
This heartwarming story of a man who surmounts immense obstacles to start his own coffee company is what certified literary good guy Dave Eggers does best: a true account of a scrappy underdog, told in a lively, accessible style.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of “The Monk of Mokha,” is an extraordinary man. A San Francisco-born Yemeni-American raised in the then-hardscrabble Tenderloin district, Alkhanshali was well on his way to a life of petty crime when he hit upon the idea of exporting coffee from his ancestral homeland.
As Eggers details with evident admiration, Alkhanshali employed a combination of street smarts, hustle and tenacity to raise a modest stake, talk his way into the fringes of the coffee business and, finally, travel to Yemen to tour the nation’s erratic but promising coffee bean farms. Along the way, the reader receives a brisk mini-education in the intricacies of coffee, from roasting techniques that bring out “more than eight hundred different aroma and taste components” to the grueling study required to become a certified “Q grader,” or professional arbiter of coffee quality.
Alkhanshali is equable in the face of every challenge – he passes his Q test – and his dream is about to become reality. But then the Houthi coup of early 2015 throws Yemen into civil war. Alkhanshali is trapped in the country with “the best beans grown in Yemen in eighty years,” unable to book passage to a crucial trade show in Seattle.
The last third of the book details Alkhanshali’s hair-raising plan to escape by whatever means come to hand, and it is absolutely as gripping and cinematically dramatic as any fictional cliffhanger. Alkhanshali and his two companions must drive through firefights and enemy lines, bluffing their way through heavily armed checkpoints and more than once facing summary execution. (“I have plenty of dead men on my conscience,” one sinister vigilante tells him at gunpoint. “I killed two of you earlier today.”)
Throughout the entire bravura sequence, Alkhanshali displays a cool head, quick thinking and unstoppable amounts of straight-up courage. To say more would give away too much, but the denouement has the hard-earned emotional weight of the improbable underdog made good.
In choosing Alkhanshali as his subject, Eggers has hit on a surefire crowd pleaser, embodying as he does the great assimilationist virtues of hard work and entrepreneurial savvy. Only a hardened cynic, a truly crabbed and ungenerous spirit, would be able to resist this tale.
Unfortunately, one such person is writing this review. The problem with Eggers’ book is not in its execution, which is superb, but with its conception. Eggers, of course, means to use his celebrity platform to give a leg up to a worthy unknown, which is commendable but faintly discomfiting. In the end, appropriating a person of color’s experience this way feels a tad patronizing.
Yes, that objection feels fundamentally unfair. Eggers spent years writing this book, and his own cameo near the end is a warm and modest grace note. And yet somehow the ventriloquism doesn’t sit well. However unwittingly, it makes “The Monk of Mokha” an example of the Trope of the Exceptional Immigrant, in which an extraordinary person of color or foreign origin is held up as a rebuke to racism or xenophobia.
It is an attractive strategy – think of all the brilliant writers who made defiant declarations of their “shithole” origins recently – but it conceals an ethical trap: the implication that only the talented (or profit making!) truly belong in America, while the destitute and broken can be turned away. To accept a man with the grit and drive of Mokhtar Alkhanshali into your community, to celebrate his success, is hardly the mark of an advanced moral society.
In addition, Eggers’ narrative expresses a curiously limited conception of the American Dream. Eggers is an honorable and generous man, but it is dismaying to realize that his hero, his successful man of the times, is not a civil rights lawyer or a union leader or – God forbid – a writer, but a California start-up entrepreneur selling a new strain of artisanal delicacy.
This blithe embrace of aspirational consumer capitalism colors the narrative in uneasy ways. In a telling scene near the end of the book, Alkhanshali buys one of the posh apartments in the fancy building where he used to work as a lowly doorman, and this status symbol is presented as being of the essence of his achievement. We are meant to cheer, or perhaps weep, when he shows the place off to his disbelieving parents.
Something is out of tune here. Both Eggers’ appropriation of narrative and choice of belle ideal feel – it hurts to say it – very 2010. In 2018 our dreams, as well as our nightmares, are bigger than this.