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‘The Monk of Mokha’ review: Dave Eggers on a Yemeni-American’s coffee importing odyssey

Writer Dave Eggers, left, and Mokhtar Alkanshali, who

Writer Dave Eggers, left, and Mokhtar Alkanshali, who is the subject of the author's new book, "The Monk of Mokha." Photo Credit: Jeremy Stern

THE MONK OF MOKHA, by Dave Eggers. Alfred A. Knopf, 323 pp., $28.95.

Perhaps no drink has as charged a back story as coffee. Each sip is the improbable result of a complicated supply chain that sometimes wends its way back to the world’s poorest or most troubled regions: Honduras, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea.

While much has been written about coffee’s fraught origins, it’s unusual to see the drink illuminated through the lens of a single life. In his new book “The Monk of Mokha,” author Dave Eggers uses the dramatic story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an aspiring 20-something coffee importer from San Francisco, to illustrate how each $4 cup of coffee we drink is almost “miraculous.”

Ever since Eggers broke out with his 2000 memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” the prolific author and editor has published books with equally staggering frequency: novels, a children’s book, a volume of short stories, creative nonfiction. The latter genre requires painstaking, immersive work, which Eggers last undertook for his 2009 book, “Zeitoun,” about a Syrian-American painting contractor in New Orleans arrested during post-Katrina rescues.

Though nothing as dramatic as a hurricane jump-starts “The Monk of Mokha,” we catch up with Mokhtar at a crossroads. Having grown up in a tightly knit Yemeni-American community in San Francisco — in one of its roughest neighborhoods, the Tenderloin — Mokhtar is a “fast learner, a fast talker, a corner-cutter” eager to break away from well-worn Yemeni career tracks as janitors, bus drivers and liquor store owners.

Despite his roiling ambition, Mokhtar’s plans for law school are derailed by a simple, absent-minded misstep, and he lands as a doorman inside a luxury San Francisco high rise called The Infinity, greeting wealthy residents while trying to read “Das Kapital” behind the front desk.

When a friend points out a statue of a Yemeni coffee drinker across the street from The Infinity, he is stunned to learn that Yemen was the birthplace of coffee cultivation. Almost immediately, Mokhtar launches a foolhardy quest to resurrect Yemen’s faltering coffee industry and improve the lives of its farmers by importing beans to the United States. That he attempts this with scant knowledge of coffee, in a country rife with tribal tensions and al-Qaida insurgency, lends the story dramatic backbone.

Eggers logged more than 100 hours interviewing Mokhtar, and many more during travels to Yemen and Ethiopia. We follow Mokhtar as he navigates disparate worlds, from specialty coffee roasters and coffee quality grading classes to his grandfather’s compound in the Yemeni city of Ibb and remote coffee farms deep in the countryside. Jamming Mokhtar’s friends, family, mentors and business partners — as well as the anatomy of coffee plants, the finer points of bean processing and the culture and politics of Yemen — into a 322-page book requires its own cutting of corners. Eggers employs economy of language, with compressed timelines and glancing descriptions. Sometimes, this no-nonsense phrasing packs a punch, as when young Mokhtar watches a man “defecating on a Mercedes” in the Tenderloin — his first memory of that neighborhood — or when the frenzied pace of a coffee cupping is brought to life. However, the speedball approach sometimes bounces between people, places and events so rapidly that they are only partly brought to life, or you puzzle over recurring characters and rapidly unfolding timelines.

Still, Mokhtar is an endearing hero, and if he has hard edges, they’ve been glossed over by Eggers. Mokhtar’s indefatigable optimism bonds you to him early, and your pulse may quicken when he tries to spirit his first batch of hard-earned coffee samples out of Yemen — just as the country devolves into civil war.

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