3 smart novels for the last weeks of summer

Three male characters head to the desert hoping to change their lives.

By , Monitor fiction critic

2. “A Hologram for the King,” by Dave Eggers

Call it limbo of a salesman. 

A washed-up, middle-aged man hangs the shredded remnants of his career on selling an I.T. system to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Alan Clay's house, which is sliding into foreclosure, his daughter's college tuition payment, and more than $100,000 in loans hinge on closing the deal. Only no one can tell him when King Abdullah might be coming in Dave Egger's latest novel A Hologram for the King. 

Clay brought his troubles on himself, as his union-member dad is fond of telling him: He was part of the team that decided to transfer production of Schwinn bicycles to Taiwan – not quite realizing he would be outsourcing himself out of a job.

“Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud. … He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in '04 and '07.”

Instead of polishing his sales pitch, Clay spends his days in Saudi Arabia in an insomniac haze, obsessing about a growth on his neck, composing letters to his daughter, and being haunted by a neighbor who drowned himself in their lake.

Part of his malaise is his literal inability to grasp his assignment: Instead of something he can hold, he's traveled thousands of miles to sell a hologram – essentially air.

The other members of the team, Cayley, Rachel, and Brad, spend their days sleeping in the demonstration tent and trying to get a decent wi-fi signal.

“None of them started, as he had, selling actual objects to actual people.”

Unable to relate to the younger, decidedly underwritten Americans, Clay spends his time telling jokes to his driver, Yousef, and listening to the latter's tangled, potentially fatal love triangle.

“This is where the money's going. They're sweeping sand in the desert,” Yousef tells Clay when they arrive at King Abdullah Economic City, a Potemkin village with beachfront condos and a Wolfgang Puck sign.

No one could accuse Eggers, author of the excellent nonfiction works “Zeitoun” and “A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius,” of not having his pulse on the zeitgeist.

When a reader lives in a manufacturing state like Michigan, stories of Chinese companies buying patents from US firms and then underbidding them on projects with their own technology have a certain trenchant resonance.

“We're a nation of indoor cats,” a drunk traveler on a plane tells Clay.

But compared with “Alif the Unseen,” this novel feels smoothly done, but familiar. “A Hologram for the King” is a dispirited descendant of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer-winningDeath of a Salesman,” with echoes of “Waiting for Godot” and the travel-induced queasiness of “Lost in Translation.”

“Attention must be paid,” Miller famously wrote of his title character.

Eggers, here, details what happened while Clay and the rest of the country was looking the other way. The revelations aren't new, but any middle-aged person wondering where his or her career disappeared to during the past five years will easily relate to the main character.

And the novel leaves a reader with an unsettling question: What does it bode for a nation of shopkeepers when its salesmen have nothing left to sell?

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