An astronaut regains consciousness to find himself shackled to a post in a disused military base.

His kidnapper Thomas is a fellow student from college days with whom he once had a conversation. Groggy from chloroform, Ken cannot really recall this guy, but his captor remembers him as clearly as if it was the day they briefly exchanged words. On that occasion, Ken had confided he wanted to go up in the Space Shuttle. Thomas found that inspirational. But now he is infuriated America's days of space exploration seem to be over. "We have to buy seats on Russian rockets! How f***ed-up is that?"

Thomas has tied up Ken so he can answer questions about why America has lost its way. Soon, however, he thinks of someone who might also be able to help his inquiry and a few hours later, he returns with a former congressman who lost two limbs in the Vietnam War. "Son, did you really kidnap me to talk about the Space Shuttle?"

Loading article content

Told entirely in dialogue, Eggers's pretentiously titled novel is as much a play as a novel, except there is no direction, no indication of action or scene beyond what the characters describe. So deft is he, however, that the setting and mood are perfectly clear - the remoteness of the dilapidated base, the roaring sea nearby, the danger facing his victims.

Over a period of days, Thomas's character and grievances emerge as he adds to his collection of inmates for interrogation. By the time he has amassed all the witnesses he needs to the disappointments of his life, the parameters of his insanity grow clearer. At their heart is the killing of his only friend Don, an Asian-American drug addict who was shot by the police one night. What the reader cannot discern, however, is if he will prove seriously violent.

Including his mother in his round-up, Thomas berates her for ruining his childhood. When she replies she did the best she could, he sneers: "You did a good job with me because I'm tall and don't have leprosy?" Out of their arguing a miserable story emerges of an upbringing designed around the mother's ramshackle affairs. At the same time, there is the uneasy sense of a boy thirled early to the idea of victimhood. By the time a policeman who was involved in Don's shooting is brought to the base, and the receptionist at the hospital where he died, the portrait of disaffected manhood is complete.

Up to this point, the story is compelling, rattling along so lightly it would be a jeu d'esprit but for its sobering subject. Eggers writes so well you would read a computer manual if it was by him, but beneath his beguiling style is a base note of genuine concern about those who find themselves out of kilter with society. Since his poignant debut, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, in all his work he has addressed the anomie induced by modern life: its ethical quandaries and brutal lack of interest in individuals in need.

These books rarely felt preachy. With this novel, though, the tone grows pious whenever Eggers articulates why Thomas has gone off the rails, as when he bemoans the emptiness of life for people like him and Don: "We've been out in the wilderness and tasted raw meat, and now we can't sit at the table using utensils."

Equating their plight with that of soldiers returned from duty is perhaps yet more evidence that he is a fantasist. Even so, his main premise is not entirely misguided. America was once a country of frontiersmen, be it the Wild West or space, where there was work for ordinary men. Now, there is none, and thousands are dying of boredom and neglect: "If you don't have something grand for men like us to be part of, we will take apart all the little things. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Building by building. Family by family."

In this slight but intriguing novel, Eggers shows the tripwire that lies between acknowledging the world is unfair, and finding targets on whom to pin the blame when - perhaps the cruellest truth of all - the finger can rarely be pointed in any meaningful direction.