Nov. 11, 2010, Veterans Day. The dining room of the Washington Duke Inn. It's an appropriately ironic time and place for the scene: Dave Eggers, whose notably ironic debut, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, made him an instant Gen X literary celebrity a decade ago, and who founded the anti-establishment press McSweeney's and the literacy and tutoring center 826, sat with Durham novelist Eric Martin. Over breakfast, they were plotting what The Washington Post would later introduce as "a literary guerilla action."
Martin was meeting Eggers the morning after he gave an uplifting good-citizen talk at Duke's Page Auditorium—mostly about Zeitoun, his book about a post-Katrina rescue zealot who, being Muslim, was wrongfully detained and imprisoned in New Orleans. The indefatigably upbeat Eggers advocated for "human contact at every level" and for performing "small acts of heroism" for each other here in what he called the "most welcoming country in the world."
Nothing about the context—the place, the time, Eggers' message of the moment—would seem likely to suggest that Eggers and Martin were discussing what to do with Martin's new book, co-written with Stephen Elliott (founder of the online magazine The Rumpus) under the McSweeney's auspices. It's called Donald—as in Rumsfeld—and it doesn't seem very uplifting or welcoming at first glance, nor a book you'd choose to read on Veterans Day.
The novella, which was released on Feb. 6, two days before Rumsfeld's own memoir—its cover is virtually identical to the "real" book, with a key alteration—imagines what would happen if the former defense secretary were abducted to a detainment center much like Guantánamo, Bagram and others, of which he is at least the authorizer if not the author, and subjected to "enhanced interrogation." Brusque yet elliptical, the book is not a character assassination, a polemic or a one-note academic satire. There's real writing under Donald's shrewdly gimmicky "hook" cover.
That isn't a surprise. Eric Martin graduated from Duke in 1991 after studying fiction with Ariel Dorfman and Reynolds Price, and later received his MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin before earning a Fulbright scholarship, which he used to write his most recent novel, The Virgin's Guide to Mexico (2007).
Martin's first three books, which he describes as "social realist fiction," more strongly favor Price's lyrical naturalism than Dorfman's overtly ideological work (although they do have political concerns). The books' narratives are unrelated—the first takes place in eastern North Carolina, the second in San Francisco and the third mostly in Mexico City—but each tells a similar story: A youngish person of some privilege, driven at first by an idealistic sense of purpose, detours into a mystery-tinged romance with how the other half lives. These stories don't seem like the run-up to the explicitly political, rough-tongued Donald, a sample of which follows:
"He knows exactly what they're doing but it still takes every ounce of his soul to restrain himself. He used to snow mad flurries of five-line memos down on idiots like these. This is going to cost them everything. Too bad they don't have much. 'You bet,' he says. 'When you give me your word.' ... He went to school with morons like this. Breezy. Everything comes easy. Not a scholarship kid. Not a student soldier. Not by a long shot. He looks forward to ruining his life."
Martin acknowledges that Donald represents a break from his first novels.
"The reception of these three books was critically good," Martin recalls, "but also pretty muted in a crowded world." The young author questioned himself and his work.
"I was in this transition," Martin says, "a couple years' worth of a journey of figuring out where I was as a writer.
"I had been thinking about the allegorical novel," he continues, naming books like J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Jose Saramago's Blindness. Meanwhile, Martin contributed two chapters to a McSweeney's book, edited by Elliott, called Where To Invade Next (2007), which took its cue from Gen. Wesley Clark's claim that the U.S. military had attack plans, in the aftermath of the post-9/11 Iraq invasion, for seven other countries. By way of ironic critique, the book laid out the case, in systematic and unironic factual detail, for invading each country. Thus Martin's political appetite had already been whetted when Elliott approached him with the idea for Donald.
Much of the book's first draft was written in just 48 hours in a cabin in Marin County, Calif., where the two writers armed themselves with Rumsfeld biographies, Moazzam Begg's Guantánamo memoir, Enemy Combatant, and reams of declassified documents detailing the horrors of the prisons. Elliott left the manuscript in the hands of his collaborator, who spent the next two years working on it and finished it last fall.
"It's the most open-minded I've ever been as a writer," Martin says.
And then Eggers came to the Washington Duke Inn.
"The only way this could happen at this point was if Eggers got excited about it," Martin says, although Eggers hadn't read it yet.
"At first, we're just talking about the book, and then I see his eyes start to focus. He says, 'When is this Rumsfeld memoir coming out?'" Martin told him the date, Feb. 8, 2011.
"And he says, 'That's the only day this can come out. I see it in the indie bookstores. We have a cover like their cover; they're sitting side by side.' He says, 'Send it to me now.' You could see him thinking, 'I hope it's good.'"
A week later, Eggers told Martin that McSweeney's would publish Donald. "The whole machine kicked into gear. We were doing final edits over Christmas; the editor called me Christmas Day at my in-laws' house to do line edits. A friend of mine in Australia designed the cover in a weekend. It was actually in stores before Rumsfeld's book." The entire process, from the decision to publish Donald to its street date, took less than three months.
Martin now finds his life as a writer, like the life of his fictional protagonist, suddenly transformed and in unknown territory. But unlike the Donald of Donald, its author has been liberated from the confines of his previous work.
"I came out of it feeling like this book is the transitional stepping-stone from my three novels, which are almost like a trilogy, into a new, different place," Martin says.
"This is going to get me there," he continues. "I'm not entirely sure what there looks like yet, but I know it's going to be pretty different from where I've been. I'm not sure how I would have done it without this book."