Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, Dave Eggers

fATHERSThis is a short novel, but my review is long because it raises many questions for the reader, although I don’t think it definitively resolved any of them at the end. I gave the book four stars because I simply could not stop listening to it. The readers were all superb, and the storyline kept me completely rapt. The device of using only dialogue between the characters kept me spellbound waiting for one conversation to end and another to begin. The only negative was that although I kept waiting for the conversations to reveal some monumental hidden goal, there never seemed to be any great disclosure. I was never quite sure whether or not Thomas’s main objective was to discover why his friend was killed or to discover why he, Thomas, was a complete failure. Was he trying to discover who was to blame for his shortcomings and the shortcomings of those like him? There was a point made that there are many more out there, just like him, lost souls searching for something, and most often trying to find it in the wrong way. This was a confused and angry, very disappointed, young man with a loose hold on reality. He was obviously, loosely wound, and the reader is reminded of that fact by several characters as the dialogue plays itself out.
Thomas kidnaps several people over the course of a few days. The victims range from a young man he idolized when he was at school, an astronaut with no shuttle to fly because the space program ended just after his long years of preparing for it, to a policeman who winds up coincidentally complicit in the death of his friend Don Banh, an Amerasian who was shot by police after behaving bizarrely, to a mother whom he resents for her former addiction which impacted his life negatively, to a disabled congressman who lost limbs during the Viet Nam War in an unfortunate accident, a man who had been in a motorcade car with Thomas and Don when they were students being honored, to a hospital administrator that handled the paper work for his injured and later deceased friend, whom he thought was complicit in his death because of the way the paperwork was handled, and finally to a love interest he discovers while walking on the beach. Because it is revealed that most of the characters are serendipitously connected in some way to his past and contributed to his psychological problems, it appears a bit contrived, however, making them strangers at first, then slowly revealing their connection later, for me to discover, served to grip my attention.
Thomas begins his narrative with the astronaut. The dynamics between the kidnapper and the captor is different with each victim. Their relationship, as it plays out, reveals a great deal about each of their backgrounds and how they are somehow complicit in the injustices he perceives. Thomas is searching for answers, some of which he obtains and some of which he has already predetermined in his mind, and he is really just trying to make his victims concur with his own conclusions.
He shackled each of his captives to a post, each in a separate room in a building on an abandoned military base, in a location far from a city. Several characters, coincidentally, are connected to the base in their past. Each one had been chloroformed and transported there without much memory of anything but the moment they first saw the kidnapper who looked so ordinary, they did not feel threatened. The only one who felt the slightest concern was Sarah, the love interest who was previously unrelated to him in any way. Thomas told each captive that his objective was to ask questions and it was their duty to respond honestly or he had weapons at his disposal to convince them to answer. He warned that he would taser them or mace them or do anything else he had to do to obtain their cooperation. He convinced himself that everything that played out over the few days was fated. He was somehow being guided and watched over by a higher force. He believed that he would get away with this crime. He had it all planned out and his plan was working like a charm.
This is a dark story, in many ways. Thomas has no redeeming features. He is out of touch with reality and his memory of events is different than those who experienced them with him. He denies the incidents that caused him pain and refuses to accept his own responsibility for his actions or to assume any guilt. He is searching for the reason he has been unsuccessful in his life, but he ignores the obvious reason, he has not tried hard enough, rather he has blamed everyone and everything else for his lack of accomplishment and satisfaction. To Thomas, the overriding theme is that there should be a higher power providing him with some purpose, some goal. He believes that all those young people out there in the world like him, those misfits who cause all the problems and all the crimes, should be told what to do by the government, to prevent them from causing all the troubles in the world. He wonders many times why the government didn’t just give them all a project to do, something to occupy them, to inspire them to better things. He does not believe in self-reliance or in his own responsibility to achieve. Because he is unstable, mentally, he thinks that what he has accomplished by kidnapping all of these people, to find answers, to discover clues to his misery, is finally his greatest achievement.
Thomas was concerned about the waste of money and lives lost in fighting wars that cost billions and accomplished little? He wondered, wouldn’t it be better to use that money for better purposes, like the space program, instead of having to hitch a ride with the Russians? Why create dreams for people to strive toward and then remove the opportunity after they worked so hard to achieve their goal? What of the falsified records that somehow find their way into police investigations, the cover-ups in other events? Should policemen try to find out more about their victims before they react to them or would that unnecessarily endanger their own lives, making them victims, although it prevented the deaths of potential unarmed criminals? Although his concerns were genuine, he failed to consider all of the details and, thus, drew false conclusions about the events that troubled him. Thomas had the personality of a bully on the one hand and an innocent child on the other; he was never made whole.
At times, I found the story infuriating. Thomas made me want to scream, to haul off and shake some sense into him. Essentially, I felt the same constraint as the victims. I was helpless to do anything to stop him. Thomas was arrogant and supercilious, condescending and overconfident, even as he accused his victims of being rude and condescending to him, which caused him to threaten them with the very bodily harm he promised not to inflict. He was often guilty of the same crimes he accused everyone else of committing. His grasp of reality was thin, his memory was skewed and because the other character’s dialogue sometimes contradicted his version of events, I was not sure who was remembering accurately, at times.
Eggers did not present a realistic situation regarding the needs of the victims. They all seemed to do fairly well, although they had limited food, drink, medications, mobility or toilet facilities, and were of varied age and needs. He made Thomas a character that seemed to be concerned for the victim’s welfare, reassuring each that he was not going to harm them and would eventually let them go as soon as he got all the answers to his questions, but over the period of about three days, they were largely ignored or threatened. The captives soon acquiesced to their situation and ceased resisting, trying to outwit the psychologically damaged man with their own wits, often setting unfortunate consequences in motion.
Eggers attacks the political system, but I was not sure of his message. Was he for or against the system? Did he believe that Thomas was the one being wronged, that Thomas was simply a victim of circumstances, of his environment and his upbringing? Was his failure a societal failure or his own? Was he trying to show that disturbed people were running amok in a society that reveres men of honor and power regardless of the immoral way they behave and puts valuable resources in the wrong places so the situation perpetuates itself? After all was said and done, I felt that the message was that the monkeys were running the zoo, they came in all shapes and sizes, and no powers that be existed that were able to contain them or make them suitable for civilized society. Even the so-called normal citizens were guilty of some form of bad behavior, either turning a blind eye to an injustice or by actually being complicit in its cover-up.
In the end, I believe Eggers was trying to force the reader to wonder whose fault it is when someone fails, to think about what is wrong with the system and perhaps try to fix it, but I don’t feel the message came through loud and clear. Is it the government’s responsibility to provide something for everyone to enable them to succeed, even when they repeatedly fail, perhaps for lack of making the effort, or is it the person’s responsibility to try harder to succeed when provided with the opportunity? The issues brought up were never really resolved in any way, and the conclusion was a bit of a cliff-hanger with no final resolution.
Was the ultimate message that we all witness the same events differently and never truly know each other? Was the message that we all needed to get to know each other and our needs more intimately? Does Thomas ever realize that all of his victims had mountains to climb, problems to surmount, which they did, while he complained? They did not look for excuses as he did, but worked to solve their problems. Did he ever understand the reason for his failure was himself and no one else, no other system, no other influence? I did not really know at the end. Was the ultimate message that the situation is hopeless because we continue to keep the status quo in all things? I sure hope not.

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About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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