From the author of The Circle and What Is the What, the true story of a young Yemeni-American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee but finds himself trapped in Sana'a by civil war.
Mokhtar’s tale, for which Eggers makes himself the conduit, starts out as a story of the frustration of second-generation immigrant assimilation and becomes an anecdotal history of coffee culture and practice. It ends as a kind of breathless thriller as Mokhtar braves militia roadblocks, kidnappings and multiple mortal dangers in order to get his first coffee samples to a producers’ conference in Seattle, the make or break for his business. In some senses, particularly at the outset, you wonder if this narrative would work best as a brilliant long-read magazine article. However, as it goes on, as Eggers explodes Mokhtar’s tale to book length, with all the detail that implies, you start to understand his wider purpose. He is anxious to put not only Mokhtar’s story on the page, but somehow Mokhtar himself, all his hopes, all his obstacles. Look at this extraordinary American, Eggers’s attention says. And more to the point, look at him at this particular moment; give him some proper time; no story is more urgent.
It’s narrative nonfiction that is his natural home. Telling other people’s stories seems to focus him. The sentences take on an Orwellian clarity — they’re lean and clean, flensed of the tics, doodles and strenuous self-consciousness of his early work, and of the dour didacticism of the new novels. In The Monk of Mokha, he moves lightly between story and analysis, and between brisk histories of Yemeni immigration to America; gentrifying San Francisco; coffee cultivation; and the saints and thieves who dispersed the beans around the world ... It left me warmed, but also wired, and a little twitchy. What is it about Eggers? What accounts for this aftertaste that is equal parts admiration and suspicion?...Eggers wants to humanize immigrants, but in his telling, something very different seems to occur. Everything about his characters is outsize — their bravery and suffering, their resilience and capacity for forgiveness, their contributions to the country. They are supermen, their powers 'entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor.' Time was, to make a home in this country it was enough to yearn to breathe free.
At its best moments, Mokha reads like one of those obsessive journalistic explorations of a quotidian object—think John McPhee's grand Oranges or Mark Kurlansky's brilliant Cod or Salt ... The final third of Mokha is concerned with the procurement and delivery of Alkhanshali's first crop — a shipment of tons of beans — through a Yemen choked with civil war and battered by Saudi missile strikes. It's a cracking tale of intrigue and bravery and more than a little bit of luck ... He is by no means impartial; Alkhanshali is his friend, and the book is a celebration of that friendship. Eggers excels when he brings his sweeping novelist's scope to the issues that matter most to him — income inequality, the spoils of colonialization — and he stumbles when Alkhanshali's tale demands a more impartial witness. But really, every biography is a kind of love story between the author and their subject. And if Eggers leans a bit too heavily on the over-earnest mythologization of an American citizen with deep Yemeni roots during the disastrous Trump presidency, who — really — could blame him?