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The Famous Are Different From You and Me
February 20, 2007 - 9:40am


Multiply 15 minutes of fame by 6 billion people, and you’re bound to run across someone famous sometime. Some encounters are more notable than others.

There was that night in Santa Monica, when the girl I was with asked a familiar-looking man at a café table if we’d seen his work, and he said haughtily, “I’ve been in many, many things.” Later that night we remembered he did supermarket commercials in the style of the more famous Mr. Whipple. Later still, the girl borrowed the keys to my truck to get her jacket and stole all my things.

There was the Thanksgiving in London, a working trip for Mrs. Churm, when every dried-up English granny in town disapproved of me having a toddler out in public, and Starbuck and I finally took refuge in a McDonald’s near Trafalgar Square. He was eating his cheeseburger, and I was staring out the plate glass window, when Ron Jeremy, the American porn actor, walked past. The Brits call him The Hedgehog. My startled double-take made Jeremy look. That night he was on BBC Two. The interviewers giggled and pressed him on his talent for auto-fellatio as he tried to talk about his love for his father. Made to sum up a career in porn, he said tiredly, “It’s just about bubbies.”

Then there was the night last week when several of us were fortunate enough to go out with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

In case you’re not from around here, I should explain that Dave Eggers is the head of the McSweeney’s enterprise, which includes a book publisher, a literary quarterly, a book review ( The Believer), a DVD magazine ( Wholphin), tutoring centers in six cities, and the humorous Internet Tendency, for which I also write. He’s editor of The Best American Nonrequired Reading series, the screenwriter for the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (due out in 2008), and the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, and How We Are Hungry. His new novel, What is the What, is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan.

The reviews couldn’t be more admiring, and the book is one of five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The story makes personal and immediate certain grim aspects of globalization, but it also has humor, suspense, and adventure. Francine Prose compares it to Huck Finn. All proceeds go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.

I’d read that a brush with Dave was an invitation to others’ questions about him, and this is turning out to be true. But what can I tell you? He’s young, visibly tired, but in good spirits. He had a beer with his stir-fry, and the man can eat the hell out of some chocolate cake.

It did occur to me, sitting next to Valentino and listening to my colleagues argue about the pronunciation of “ragout,” that it was a bit perverse that, after all Valentino had suffered in his life, the price he had to pay for getting his message out was to be wined and dined by college professors in a Midwestern sushi restaurant. Nonetheless, he was polite, curious, and engaged, and we talked about his family, his fame in the Sudan, the role teachers played in both our lives, and his new life as a college freshman at Allegheny College. There was an awful moment, after he’d asked about my sons, when I said he’d make a terrific father and asked if he planned to have children, and he told me in a flat voice that his fiancée had been murdered in America.

Another writer that night asked Dave how he was holding up at the signings and said that he himself had never signed a book for a fan, though he would reply to letters. Dave good-naturedly said he enjoyed meeting readers and added, “We have a good time, don’t we, Val?” Valentino agreed and seemed puzzled by the other writer’s question. Later he and Dave were going out with people from the student newspaper.

As we were leaving I asked Dave if he minded, and he graciously took my copy of What is the What. I spelled my pen name for him, and after he signed, he handed the book in a practiced motion to Valentino, who also signed it. When I got home I read the kind inscription and saw that the title page was smeared with chocolate cake, a fine touch, and the mark authenticating my one night out with the famous.


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