Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

9780241244906 (1).jpgSometimes, when I’m maxed out on jadedness — which is rare, I’d like to clarify— I wonder whether the world needs another story about a young person chasing the American dream. This thought typically occurs when I’m shelving books, and finding stock already wedged in too tight, which leaves me with no other option but to place the book face-out in front of spine-out books; a booksellers nightmare, a true last resort. I will glower at the troublesome book and puzzle over its merit; its worthiness. That was the case with The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, which recounts the story of a Yemeni immigrant seeking his purpose in life, finding it, and then chasing it despite impossible odds.

This is a feel-good, fist-pump story, replete with humour and danger — and coffee, so much coffee! — and told in the author’s brilliantly digestible prose. But although the specifics of Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s journey are unique, the overall narrative arc The Monk of Mokha encapsulates, isn’t. We know how Mokhtar’s story is going to end from the beginning; with success; overcoming every obstacle in his way.  And I suppose, with the United States reverberating from a period of Trump Turbulence, it’s good to be reminded of the fortitude and determination of certain individuals; but come the book’s end, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed, like the book was a tad under cooked in certain places. Like, despite the facts at his disposable, Eggers failed to take full advantage.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a Yemeni-American  grower, roaster and importer of coffee from his homeland. This ain’t no ordinary brew, however; Port of Mokha espressos are priced at $16 USD at Blue Bottle coffee shops, which reflects the difficulties of production and shipping from a country in chaos. But Mokhtar worked hard for his success, and Eggers details his early life: dropping out of college, working as a doorman in an upmarket apartment block, moving from job to job, desperately searching for direction, a purpose. The question that kicked off Mokhtar’s quest was simple: why was coffee no longer imported from Yemen? Searching for answers inspired his idea for a business; but the development of that business was routinely blunted by Yemen’s implosion, as sectarian war and famine threatened to dismantle his operation. Indeed, the The Monk of Mokha takes on an Argo vibe when Mokhtar attempts to flee the country, braving militia roadblocks, kidnappings and  mortal dangers in order to get his first coffee samples to a producers’ conference in Seattle, which of course happens to the make or break for his business. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The final 50 pages — which read like a thriller — are breathless and exciting, but lack the emotional evocation required to make the scenes truly resonant. Mokhtar’s escape is incredible, but there’s never any sense of how he feels about being in danger; you never smell or taste his fear, never feel his panic. The scenes are diligently rendered, but lack emotional depth; like being thrust from an intimate portrait of a young man’s journey into the climactic scenes of a Matthew Reilly novel. It’s jarring, and I was grateful when we returned to the United States, and got more introspection from Mokhtar, and shared in his delight as his battered plans came to fruition. Which was when I answered the question I’d posed to myself when the book arrived in the shop and I was desperately trying to find a home for it: of course we need more stories about people chasing the American dream. To inspire us; remind us nothing is impossible; that we are all capable of great things.

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