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Eggers' trail of broken hearts

The Bay Area goes gaga for the local boy who wrote 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.' And his aversion to publicity only feeds the frenzy.

October 20, 2002|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — This is Dave Eggers country. Two hundred people -- that's a mob for a literary reading -- packed the Berkeley bookstore where he debuted his new book this month.

"Any of my old neighbors here?" he asked. Hands shot up. He smiled, dark eyes crinkling, dark hair so tightly curled it stood up. "He was darker when I knew him -- I mean inside," a gray-bearded man in the back murmured. At City Lights in North Beach, fans filled three rooms and a balcony. In Santa Cruz, they played hooky in mid-workday to see him.

"He's here!" a young woman crowed to her friends. "I shook his hand on the way in! It was all sweaty! You can still see his sweat on my hand, even! Look! Wanna feel?"

That's how people here tend to respond to Eggers, the gifted, 32-year-old author whose 2000 career-making memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," was set in the Bay Area. This, as his readers will tell you, was where he moved in his 20s after his parents died in suburban Chicago, leaving him and his siblings to raise Toph, their little brother. This is where he lives now that Toph is a college sophomore. This is where he moved his literary journal and publishing imprint, McSweeney's, last year.

His second book, "You Shall Know Our Velocity," has not received the universal acclaim of the first one. The New York Times' influential critic Michiko Kakutani called "Velocity," his first novel, a "messy, unconvincing assemblage" that was "neither staggering nor heartbreaking, only wearying." Entertainment Weekly, which liked it, gave it a B.

But here, everything Eggers does, including the novel, only serves to stoke his star power. His decision to sell the book only through independent booksellers has been seen as pure Northern California, rewarding the small, socially conscious underdogs over the big, corporate chain stores. His novel's plot -- in which sudden riches and a sudden death prompt a young man to travel the world with a friend, giving away money -- has parallels with his own life, but he has also implied that it was inspired by San Francisco's own disparities in income.

A nonprofit writing lab, 826 Valencia, that he quietly founded this summer for Bay Area schoolchildren ended up being hailed on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle as "A Heartwarming Work of Literary Altruism." When he ran an ad for volunteers to staff its writing workshops and in-school writing assistance programs, he got 200 applications in four days and contributions from Amy Tan, Michael Chabon and a host of other local writers. For part of the summer, there was a waiting list to tutor there.

"It's a whole scene," said a laughing Heather Stiteler, a 29-year-old San Franciscan who, with members of her book club, has attended benefits for Eggers' center, which runs on donations and proceeds from a whimsical "pirate supply" shop in its lobby. "There was one [fundraising] party there a while ago where, instead of getting a stamp on your hand, you got anointed with these scented oils that were, like, his personal fragrance. He's all over the place here. Actually, it's to the point that a lot of my friends are like, 'Oh, God, Dave Eggers! Could I please never see that name again?' "

Eggers can scarcely be accused of courting the attention. He rents in Marin County, as opposed to the city's close, nosy quarters and, though he invites audiences at readings to ask questions, the onetime journalism student routinely declines press interviews.

"It just complicates things," he said, politely refusing to speak to The Times for this article. He later elaborated to an audience in San Francisco: "It just becomes the job, and you don't get anything else done, I mean, with the whole media thing." In fact, he told fans in Santa Cruz, he has come to find nonfiction in general to be problematic. "It's never right, and it can never be right for everybody all the time," he said, adding that if he had his first book to do over, "I might have fictionalized it. Or made it semiautobiographical fiction. Or set it in the Old West."

On his McSweeney's Web site, he wrote that he has "been at the point for two years now, where I get a queasy feeling every time I see my name in print."

A publishing experiment

And yet, Eggers' press aversion has been its own publicity magnet, as has his tendency to experiment with the conventions of publishing. The book tour for "A.H.W.O.S.G.," as fans refer to the first book, featured absurdist twists such as post-reading field trips and panel discussions on itching.

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