The wildness within

Dave Eggers unpacks the conflicts colliding inside a burdened boy

By Steve Almond
October 11, 2009

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It’s become difficult, in the past few years, to make a distinction between YA, or young adult, fiction and its allegedly more mature cousin. I suspect Dave Eggers’ terrific new novel, “The Wild Things,’’ will render the issue that much more muddled.

Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned. The folks in marketing may have target audiences in mind, but all readers want is a good yarn. The real question, when it comes to literature, is whether a particular author is interested in hustling us through a breakneck plot (a la Dan Brown) or investigating the internal lives of his or her creations. The best books - and I happily include “The Wild Things’’ on this list - manage to do both.

The novel is the product of a rather unusual case of creative license. It’s based on the upcoming film, “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ which Eggers co-wrote, which is, in turn, based on the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak.

Our plot is simple enough. A troubled nine-year-old named Max runs away from home and winds up living amid a pack of huge, chimerical beasts. Eggers, whose first book was the wildly popular memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’’ has spent much of his career writing, in one way or another, about childhood. He has an intuitive grasp of what it feels like to be a kid - that volatile mixture of aggression and vulnerability, of wonder coming up hard against fear.

The first third of the book sketches Max’s turbulent home life. His dad has left; his mom is distracted; his older sister wants nothing to do with him; and Max’s rage at all three causes him to lash out in the ways commonly available to enraged nine year olds (i.e. he floods his sister’s room).

We’re supposed to view Max not as a “problem’’ child, merely one reacting to the losses he’s absorbed. Eggers works his case a bit too hard - his version of overweening suburban parenting is more caricature than characterization - but his voice remains faithful to his hero’s rambunctious spirit.

Here, for instance, is Max describing his mom’s sappy boyfriend: “Gary was folding himself into his old white car, licked everywhere by rust.’’ A bit later, he says, of a beloved neighbor, “Mr. Beckmann’s eyes were dangerously alive, punctuated by brows so thick and mischievously arched that he seemed at all times to be plotting a great and dastardly plan.’’

Once Max reaches the island of the beasts, Eggers goes for broke. We get a writhing Technicolor landscape of carnivorous vines, lava beds, mini-tornadoes, mutant snakes, and, of course, the beasts themselves, a motley bundle of brawn and neuroses.

Max is anointed their king, a dubious honor that soon leaves him managing both their abundant anxieties, and their beastly urges. No eating heads, for instance.

“I mean, we shouldn’t eat heads, and that makes sense,’’ one of his subject’s concedes. “But what if we find ourselves in a position where we really want to eat someone’s head or maybe arm?’’

Max reiterates his edict, but another interrupts. “But what if someone’s head falls off? That sometimes happens. Can we eat it then?’’

These exchanges are quite funny - Laurel & Hardy as adapted for the unhinged id. But Eggers is going for more than laughs. In assuming the throne, Max has to suffer the consequences of his own violent whims, and the limits of his power. He tries to keep the beasts happy, but they inevitably grow restive, and before long Max is running for his life across the island. What begins as a fantasia along the lines of “The Wizard of Oz’’ devolves into a scene reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies.’’

Although the beasts all have distinct personalities, some of which roughly correspond to his family members, Eggers resists easy parallels. The central struggle presented here is between the warring factions within Max himself. The beasts are no more than grotesque embodiments of his own confused impulses: imaginative and affectionate one moment, needy and destructive the next.

Only as the island collapses into chaos around him, does Max begin to think about returning from his exile. “But even if he could make it home,’’ he frets, “he was sure his family had forgotten him. . . . Maybe the house had fallen in on itself from all the damage he’d done to it. Maybe his mother and sister had been crushed under the weight of the beams he’d weakened with all that water. No, no, he convinced himself. They were alive, but happy to be rid of an animal like him.’’

Of course, Max does eventually return home, not tamed so much as tempered. He’s come to recognize that suffering lives within all creatures - even the mightiest beasts. “In their slumber, the giant creatures were infant-like, almost cute,’’ he observes, gazing at them one last time, “and at the same time pathetic, tragic, burdened by all they carried with them.’’

As should be evident, Egger has written a book for readers of all ages, without dumbing down his prose. But his highest achievement is in having found a fresh way to tell us a story we already know so well, about the monstrous forces of love and hate that mark every childhood - and pursue us howling into adulthood.

Steve Almond’s new book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,’’ will be published in April.

By Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s, 288 pp., $19.95

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