Dan Eldon: The Art of Life
Jennifer New
(Chronicle Books)

The publication of Eldon's journals--after he was killed at the tender age of 22, while photographing the war in Somalia--vaulted him into a kind of cult Valhalla. The journals themselves are a wonder: a vibrant blast of photography, writing, art, and collage. A coming-of-age story, a testament to the ambivalence of a white family living in Africa. It's the work of a very young artist who already knew that evil and joy can coexist in the same place, and it tells us all we need to know.

But now, there's a biography, Dan Eldon: The Art of Life, and it reads like a eulogy, like something commissioned by a well-meaning and still-grieving family. Author Jennifer New has clearly interviewed a lot of Eldon's friends and family, but somehow his story has been distilled into the worst kind of pap: "Many people sensed, both during and after his life, that he had a clearer vision than most of us. Perhaps it was his impish, mischievous grin."

New writes as if she's inside Eldon's head--a device which quickly grows tiring and unbelievable ("He took solace in her gentle spirit")--and in a voice that fairly resounds with NPR-narrative inflections ("As Lengai drove through the dark night, Dan felt the rhythm of the road underneath them"). To her credit, she pulls back in the paragraph about his death--he was stoned by an angry crowd--to stark and unforgettable effect. But the worst misstep is the way she writes about his art, as if it were only there to be plumbed for clues to his person.

What's happening here--the biography, the cottage industry springing up around Eldon's life and death--is akin to what happened after the (relatively) early death of Bruce Chatwin, another young white man given to exploring the farther reaches. It's not enough, it seems, to read his clear, strong prose and view the world through his eyes; there is a misguided impulse to have more. It detracts from the real work, ossifies it, turns it into a lesson rather than art. This is not to say that Eldon wasn't any of the things that he was: he was lively, passionate, whip-smart, creative, and probably a stand-up guy. He was on his way to becoming a real artist, and it's tragic that his full potential will never be realized. But skip the bio and read the journals; everything you need to know is there.