The longest story in Dave Egger’s critically acclaimed collection How We Are Hungry, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” has been praised as both Eggers’s “finest, darkest story” (Reese) and a must-read for would-be mountain climbers. A number of reviewers connect it with the work of Ernest Hemingway. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott, for instance, believes that “Eggers casts a sly backward glance at Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro and then dares to improve upon it, updating its romanticism for our own guarded, unromantic age.” Tim Bissell, too, compares Eggers’s story with Hemingway’s “Kilimanjaro,” “perhaps the world’s most literary mountain,” and the reviewer David Barringer likens it to both the Hemingway story and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), in which truth and horror are revealed to characters who confront the raw power of nature and wilderness. The story is based on Eggers’s own climb of Tanzania’s famous mountain, which apparently appeals as much to contemporary writers (e.g., Michael Crichton, Douglas Adams) as it did to Hemingway.
The plot is straightforward, but the suspense and the unpredictable ending maintain the reader’s attention. A small but varied group of five Americans have joined the EcoHeaven tour that will take them up the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro—but at the expense of three black lives. Jerry is the owner of a chain of restaurants, who has cherished the dream of climbing Kilimanjaro with his son, Mike, since Mike was 10 years old. Mike is an automotive engineer who specializes in ambulances and who would rather be anywhere but Mt. Kilimanjaro. The higher they climb, the more pain he feels in more body parts, eventually collapsing on the trail and failing to reach the peak, or to “summit,” as hikers call it. Shelly is the 40ish ex-hippie who understands Rita better than Rita knows and expresses astonishment and disbelief that Rita did not know, even subconsciously, that the three large duffel bags contained the bodies of the three young porters who froze to death. Grant is a sturdy telephone systems programmer from Montana who attempts to learn the language and who volunteers to help take the corpses down the mountain. None of his thoughts suggests that by bearing the dead porters down the mountain, he sacrificed a cherished dream to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The major character in the story is Rita, a hesitant, insecure woman in her late 30s who closes her eyes to the brutal facts of reality; “it is expansive and well fenced, her landscape, the quiet acres of her mind” (160). Her inability to stand up for herself or to acknowledge death or, for that matter, any sort of unpleasantness is illustrated early in the story: “To witness a death! Rita could never do it. Even if they made her sit there, behind the partition, she would close her eyes and hum songs about candy” (142). And indeed, on Mt. Kilimanjaro, when the dead porters are carried away, Rita literally shuts her eyes (193) so that she need not acknowledge that these young, improperly clad men froze to death in the night. The black characters have names, but their sketchier characters parallel their inferior social positions, which culminate in the preventable deaths of not one but three of the 32 porters whose lives are apparently expendable.
Rita’s body is strong, and she feels proud that she is able to “summit.” Her mind and her emotions, however, have remained static throughout the story. As the Washington Post reviewer Jeff Turrentine notes, “Eggers doesn’t fault her for trying. Like the gryphon, she’s a beautiful mutant: half of her fearful and heavy, the other half aching to fly heavenward.” On one level, then, all these characters except Grant demonstrate their willingness to achieve their own dreams without thought to the marginalized Africans. On another, they rise to the level of metaphor, as the haves— repeatedly referred to a “paying hikers”—pursue success and happiness on the backs of the have-nots, who literally carry the hikers’ baggage. In the end, despite Rita’s headlong rush down the mountain when she “learns” that three men died to help them summit, she adds her name to the book of those who successfully reached the top. Barringer asks, Is Rita’s willed na vet as simple as it sounds, or “is it meant symbolically as the see-no-evil morality of self-deluded Americans?” She acknowledges the horror but sidesteps her own role, albeit a passive one, as one of the causes of that horror.
Barringer, David. Review of How We Are Hungry. McSweeney’s Books, August 2004.
Bissell, Tim. “Up the Mountain Slowly, Very Slowly.” New York Times. 28 October 2007.
Eggers, Dave. How We Are Hungry. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. Morris, Sophie. “Social Climbing.” New Statesman, 23 April 2007.
Reese, Jennifer. Review of How We Are Hungry. Entertainment Weekly, 5 November 2004.
Scott, A. O. “How We Are Hungry: King Dave.” New York Times, 5 December 2004.
Turrentine, Jeff. “Animal Appetites: How We Are Hungry.” Washington Post Book World, 5 December 2004, p. BW12.