I’m about halfway through Dave Eggers’s new novel What is the What, and it’s quite good. The book alternates between scenes of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng on the run for his life in Sudan, and scenes of his entry into American society. Here’s a moment from the latter, when Achak and some fellow refugees are attending an Atlanta Hawks game, as guests of their countryman Manute Bol:
I had only been in the country a few months, and there I sat, in a suit, courtside at a professional basketball game. Picture it! Picture twelve refugees from Sudan, all of us wearing suits, all of these suits one size too small, donated by our churches and sponsors. Picture us sitting, trying to make sense of it all. The confusion began before the game, when a group of twelve American women of many skin colors, well-built and wearing leotards, fanned out over the empty basketball court, and they performed a hyperactive and very provocative dance to a song by Puff Daddy. We all stared at the gyrating young women,who put forth an image of great power and fierce sexuality. It would have been impolite to turn away, but at the time, the dancers made me uncomfortable. The music was the loudest I have heard in my life, and the spectacle of the stadium, with its 120-foot ceiling, its thousands of seats, its glass and chrome and banners, its cheerleaders and murderous sound system – seemed perfectly designed to drive people insane.
A few pages later:
There was one group among us who were dressed differently than the rest, wearing sweatsuits, visors, baseball hats and basketball shirts, accentuated with gold watches and chains. These men we called Hawaii 5-0, for they had just returned from Hawaii, where they were working as extras in a Bruce Willis movie. This is true. Apparently one of the Lost Boys Foundation volunteers knew a casting director in Los Angeles, who was looking for East African men to serve as extras in a movie directed by an African-American man named Antoine Fuqua. The volunteer sent a photo of ten of the Atlanta-based Sudanese men, and all ten were hired. At the party, the ten had recently returned from three months on the islands, where they stayed at a five-star hotel, had all of their necessities taken care of, and were paid generous salaries. Now they were back in Atlanta, determined to make clear that they had been somewhere, were now of a different caste than the rest of us. One of them was wearing a half-dozen gold chains over a Hawaiian shirt. Another was wearing a T-shirt bearing a screened photograph of himself with Bruce Willis. This boy wore this shirt every day for a year, and had washed it so many times that the face of Mr. Willis was now threadbare and ghostly.