by Eggers, Dave

"From the best-selling author of The Monk of Mokha, a spare, powerful story of two men, Western contractors sent to work far from home, tasked with paving a road to the capital in a dangerous and largely lawless country. Four and Nine are partners, working for the same company, sent without passports to a nation recovering from ten years of civil war. Together, operating under pseudonyms and anonymous to potential kidnappers, they are given a new machine, the RS-90, and tasked with building a highway that connects the country's far-flung villages with the capital. Four, nicknamed the Clock, is one of the company's most experienced operators, never falling short of his assigned schedule. He drives the RS-90, stopping only to sleep and eat the food provided by the company. But Nine is an agent of chaos: speeding ahead on his vehicle, chatting and joking with locals, eating at nearby bars and roadside food stands, he threatens the schedule, breaks protocol, and endangers the work that they must complete in time for a planned government parade. His every action draws Four's ire, but when illness, corruption, and theft compromise their high-stakes mission, Four and Nine discover danger far greater than anything they could pose to each other"-

Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including The Monk of Mokha; Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets? Do They Live Forever, shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award; A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the National Book Award; and What Is the What, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of France's Prix Médicis Etranger. He is the founder of McSweeney's Publishing and cofounder of Voice of Witness, a book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises. In 2002, he cofounded 826 Valencia, a youth writing center with a pirate-supply storefront, which has inspired similar programs around the world. ScholarMatch, now ten years old, connects donors with students to make college possible for all. In 2018 he cofounded the International Congress of Youth Voices, a global gathering of writers and activists under twenty. He is a winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Four knows instantly that Nine, his new partner, is "an agent of chaos." The two strangers with their terse pseudonyms have been hired to pave a new road connecting the north and south of a poor, civil-war-ravaged country. The protocols are strict; the schedule is tight-they are to complete the road in time for a celebratory parade-and the dangers are many. Four pilots the grand RS-90, which lays down perfect asphalt; Nine rides ahead, scouting for obstacles. They are to set up tents next to their vehicles at night, keep their weapons handy, eat rations, and avoid contact with locals. Four is monastic in his discipline. Nine is a man of frank carnality and curiosity, as friendly as a bounding dog and utterly reckless. Clearly things will go awry, but how and how badly? The ever-incisive, wordly-wise, compassionate, and imaginative Eggers (The Monk of Mokha, 2018) maintains the tension of a cocked crossbow in this magnetizing, stealthily wry, and increasingly chilling tale of First World corporate mercenaries way out of their element. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Requests will pour in from Eggers' many fans as well as devotees of concentrated and suspenseful works of culture-clash fiction. Copyright 2019 Booklist Reviews.

A plan to lay down a roadway runs into a few barriers in this parable of friendship and politics. The pared-down style and global themes that Eggers has embraced since A Hologram for the King (2012)—he may be the only living American writer for whom the term "Hemingway-esque" meaningfully applies—have restricted him to writing two kinds of novels. Eggers the Compassionate Realist focuses on men and women forced to adapt to economic shifting sands (Hologram; Heroes of the Frontier, 2016); Eggers the Dour Lecturer focuses on social justice concerns in ways that smother his characters (The Circle, 2013). This short novel showcases the virtues of the former, though there's a whiff of pedagogy in the prose. Two men, Four and Nine, have been assigned to pave a road in an unnamed country recovering from civil war. Four is an experienced, by-the-book type, concerned only with meeting his deadline before a celebratory parade. Nine is a reckless newbie, neglecting cautions against eating local food, swimming in a local river, and carousing. Eggers doesn't play this for comedy, Odd Couple-style, not even a little; we're mostly in Four's increasingly infuriated mind, and we know that the country is unstable enough that Nine's antics court serious consequences. But when it does, Eggers ably weaves in a host of ethical questions over one man's responsibility to the other, what makes help transactional versus simply kind, and whether the road itself will truly "bring safety and progress to the provinces at seventy miles an hour." The closing paragraphs of this short novel take an abrupt turn into Dour Lecturer territory, but the shift is earned; Eggers is determined to counter the notion that social and economic improvement work hand in hand, and Four and Nine ultimately resonate as characters as much as archetypes. An unassuming but deceptively complex morality play, as Eggers distills his ongoing concerns into ever tighter prose. Copyright Kirkus 2019 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

In the morning’s platinum light he raised his leaden head. He was lying on a plastic mattress, in a converted shipping container, below a tiny fan that circulated the  room’s tepid air.

He washed himself with packaged towelettes and put on his uniform, a black jumpsuit of synthetic fiber. Under a quickly rising sun he walked across the hotel’s gravel courtyard to his partner’s room. They had never met. He knocked on the corrugated steel door. There was no answer. He knocked louder.

After some shuffling from within, a lithesome man answered, naked but for a pair of white boxers. He had dark eyes, a cleft chin and a wide mouth ringed with full, womanly lips. A swirl of black hair rakishly obscured his left eye.

“Pick a number.”

“Nine,” the man at the door said, smiling slyly.

“Okay. You know how the company handles names. I don’t know yours, you don’t know mine. For the next two weeks, you’re Nine. Call me Four.”

“You’re Four?”

“You will call me Four. I’ll call you Nine. Got it?”

For reasons of security, the company insisted on simple pseudonyms, usually numerical.

“Got it,” Nine said, and swept his hair from his face and threw it back.

They had arrived without passports. Passports were complications and liabilities in such a place, a nation recovering from years of civil war, riddled with corruption and burdened now by a new and lawless government. Four and Nine had been flown in under assumed names on a private charter. In the past, in other nations, the company’s employees had been ransomed and killed. The kidnappers went first for their quarry’s company, then family, then nation. But without passports or names, men like Four and Nine were anonymous and of little value. Their machine, the RS-80, was almost impossible to trace. It bore no company name, no serial number and had no national registry. No one but their clients, the north­ern government in the capital, would know anything about them, their origins or employer.

“You ready to eat?” Four asked. “We have forty minutes till we begin. The crew is making a final check on the machine.”

“Soon,” Nine said, a smile overtaking his expansive mouth. Nine stepped out of the doorway and tilted his head toward the bed behind him.

Beyond Nine’s naked torso Four could see the fur­rowed sheets of an unmade bed, and woven within them the muscular legs of a sleeping woman. Nine made no effort to hide her. Instead he smiled conspiratorially. Four had never met this man, and did not think himself capable of prophecy, but in an instant he knew Nine was an agent of chaos and would make the difficult work ahead far more so.

Now Nine yawned. “Can I meet you in a few minutes?”

Four closed the door and made his way across the courtyard, now baking in the day’s young heat, to the cafeteria. The room was humid with men bent over their food—men in suits, men in faded military uniforms, men in traditional dress. All spoke in low voices over the clacking of cheap tin silverware on plastic plates.

There were only a few foreigners in the makeshift din­ing hall attached to this new hotel, comprising two dozen shipping containers arranged in an untidy semicircle. After waiting half an hour in the breakfast room, Four went to Nine’s room again and knocked on the door.

“Coming!” Nine yelled, and the room burst with laughter.

Four returned to the cafeteria and drank bottled water. Ten minutes later Nine entered the room, having showered and dressed in his company-issued black jump­suit. He had, though, declined to insert himself into the suit’s upper half. He wore a white V-neck undershirt, the jumpsuit’s sleeves dangling limply by his side, petting the other men’s shoulders as he slipped around the tables on his way to Four.

“I didn’t expect you here today,” Nine said. “The planes in these parts aren’t so punctual. That’s why I had company last night. You married?”

“No,” Four lied.

“You’re not eating?” Nine asked.

“I already ate,” Four said. In his room, he had finished a packet of dry oatmeal and powdered milk, a bag of almonds and a length of venison jerky—all of which he had brought with him. He had packed enough food for the twelve days the job was expected to take.

“You ate in your room?” Nine said, offended. “You can’t do that. The food here’s so good. Well, it’s not so good, but it’s intriguing.” His hair had fallen over his left eye and he flung it back with a flourish of his hand.

“I’ll get to it,” Nine said, and went to the buffet and chose half a grapefruit, a tall glass of mango juice, three boiled eggs and a few shards of animal bone covered in purple meat. On his way back to the table, Nine’s lifeless sleeves again flailed amid the other diners. Four looked around the room to see if any of the local men, a mix of former rebel commanders and recent profiteers, had taken an interest in Four or Nine. None had. He and his new partner were obviously foreigners in a place where most visitors were aid workers and arms inspectors, and it was better if they remained unmemorable.

Nine set his plate down and allowed his hair to fall from his forehead like the tendrils of a willow. Eschewing the tin utensils, Nine used his fingers to bring the gamey bones to his mouth for gnawing and washed the meat down with sun-colored juice. The company had advised against eating regional fruit in whole or liquid form, and strongly suggested that eggs or meat could contain E. coli, salmonella or ringworm. But Nine was devouring it all with abandon, his greasy hair groping his plate obscenely. Four could not discern what the company saw in this man. He was a liability.

“You know what she cost?” Nine asked, his mouth full. He did not wait for Four to answer. “Less than what we’re paying for breakfast. And she was fresher than this,” he said, jabbing his fork at the wet grapefruit before him.

“The machine’s waiting,” Four said. “The first pod is in place. How long until you’re ready?”

Nine looked at him, grinning. “Now I know why they call you the Clock.”

Four stood. “Be ready in ten minutes,” he said.

“You’re not serious. I just got in yesterday,” Nine said. “The schedule’s padded. This is a great town. Let’s spend a day here. Another night, more importantly.” He raised an eyebrow lewdly. “I’ll loan you my girl.”

Four pushed in his chair. “I’ll meet you out front in ten minutes. Bring all your gear.”

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