STARRED REVIEW
February 2018

An epic, caffeinated quest

By Dave Eggers

If something called the American dream is still alive, it’s personified by the protagonist of the captivating The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers’ latest work of narrative nonfiction. In it, Eggers marshals the storytelling talent he displayed in Zeitoun, his 2009 account of a Syrian-American family devastated by Hurricane Katrina and inane bureaucracy, to explore the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young Yemeni American who must overcome civil war, terrorism and his own inexperience and self-doubt to pursue his singular vision of entrepreneurial success in the specialty coffee business.

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If something called the American dream is still alive, it’s personified by the protagonist of the captivating The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers’ latest work of narrative nonfiction. In it, Eggers marshals the storytelling talent he displayed in Zeitoun, his 2009 account of a Syrian-American family devastated by Hurricane Katrina and inane bureaucracy, to explore the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young Yemeni American who must overcome civil war, terrorism and his own inexperience and self-doubt to pursue his singular vision of entrepreneurial success in the specialty coffee business.

In 2013, while employed as a doorman at a posh apartment building in San Francisco, 25-year-old Alkhanshali, who’d already demonstrated his superior salesman skills by dealing everything from Banana Republic clothing to Hondas, hatched a plan to revive the coffee business in his ancestral homeland. Eggers explains that although Ethiopia lays claim to the discovery of the coffee fruit, the first beans were brewed in Yemen, giving birth to the coffee known as “arabica.”

Alkhanshali’s audacious business model involved the promotion of the direct trading of rare coffee varietals to premium roasters. Ignoring a State Department travel warning, he left for Yemen amid U.S. drone strikes, the attacks of Houthi rebels and the constant threat of terrorism from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the final third of The Monk of Mokha, Eggers, who has been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, describes Alkhanshali’s harrowing journey back to America, carrying suitcases packed with coffee beans whose quality he hopes will secure both his business’s future and the prosperity of his farmer clients. It’s a nail-biting account, with each checkpoint and interrogation posing a new peril.

Propelled by its engaging main character and his improbable determination, The Monk of Mokha, for all its foreign elements, is at its heart a satisfying, old-fashioned American success story.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Monk of Mokha

The Monk of Mokha

By Dave Eggers
Knopf
ISBN 9781101947319

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