Publisher: McSweeneys, 2009
My Rating: 4 stars
My first experience with Dave Eggers was when I read his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. (How could I resist that title?) Although I remember liking the book, my main memory is of footnotes. Lots of footnotes. Cleverly done and witty footnotes. But still … I mainly remember the footnotes. It read and felt like the memoir of very smart young writer, but it also felt a bit “show offy” in a similar way to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. I’d not read any more Eggers books since, but I’ve come across him from time to time in anthologies or short stories. In fact, it was his essay in the anthology State by State that led me to this book. As part of my Take Another Chance Challenge, I had to read an anthology, pick a favorite selection from it, and read another work by that writer. After reading Egger’s very amusing essay on his home state of Illinois, I decided to pick him.
I bought Zeitoun knowing nothing about it. All I knew was that it was by Dave Eggers, and the cover was intriguing. Who was this guy in the boat? Where was he? What was he doing? What did Zeitoun mean? The book I found within was not what I expected from Eggers. What I found was a measured, thought-provoking accounting of one family’s experiences before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Zeitoun turns out to be Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born painting contractor who has run a successful business in New Orleans for years. Married to his wife Kathy, Zeitoun works hard raising his children and running his business. When the family first hears rumblings about a big storm moving toward New Orleans, Zeitoun never once considers leaving. His home and his business are there, and he won’t leave it to be ravaged by a hurricane. Besides, he is too busy helping clients board up their homes for the impending storm. Concerned about the increasingly dire weather reports, Kathy takes the children and evacuates New Orleans—unwilling to leave Zeitoun but knowing he cannot be convinced to leave.
When Katrina arrives, Zeitoun is thankful he stayed behind once the flooding takes over the first floor of his home. Working frantically to salvage as much of the family’s possessions as possible, Zeitoun seeks shelter on the second floor of his home, eventually being forced to sleep on the roof in a tent. Equipped with a canoe, Zeitoun ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the storm and is stunned by what he sees—a city underwater that seems eerily quiet and deserted. But bit by bit, Zeitoun finds others who stayed behind and begins to help as much as possible. As he works helping those in need—including an elderly woman trapped in her home and neighborhood dogs who have been left behind by their owners—Zeitoun feels a sense of purpose and accomplishment he’s never felt before. Galvanized by his new purpose, Zeitoun feels energized and fully alive. When he finally gets in touch with Kathy, he tells her that he is well, checking on their rental properties, and doing what he can to help. He tells Kathy that it will be some time before she and the children can return to New Orleans so she needs to find a place to live and enroll the children in school. They agree to talk on the phone each day at a certain time and make decisions about what steps to take next.
But one day, Zeitoun doesn’t call, and Kathy is plunged into worry. The news coming out of New Orleans is increasingly worrisome, and Kathy feels nervous about Zeitoun’s lack of contact. Plagued by anxiety, Kathy does everything she can think of to find out what happened to Zeitoun. Days go by without word, but then Kathy finally gets some news. What she learns is shocking and plunges her into an uphill battle to save her husband.
If I’m being vague and leaving you with a cliffhanger, it is because I think you should read this book. Learning what Zeitoun experiences in the aftermath of Katrina was shocking, outrageous and, sadly, utterly believable. Eggers makes the brilliant decision to let Zeitoun’s story speak for itself. The story doesn’t need to be embellished or embroidered with hyperbole to raise your hackles and get your blood pumping. We’ve all heard about the horrors and injustices that happened during and after Katrina, but hearing Zeitoun’s first-hand experience makes it come alive and feel very personal. And very very wrong.
Although Eggers tells this non-fiction story in narrative form, he is careful to relate things as simply and straightforwardly as possible. I’m sure it is a structure that has been criticized as blurring the line between fact and fiction, but I think Eggers manages to pull off a rather tricky balancing act. At the end, Eggers provides a list of documentation and methodology for the writing of the book and emphasizes that everything is based on the Zeitouns’ recollections, extensive interviews, and research.
Although I thought Eggers presented Zeitoun’s incendiary story in a way that lets the facts speak for themselves, I’m sure many people won’t like to hear what happens to him. Zeitoun’s story is very disturbing, yet it is a story that needs to be told. I’m glad I read this book and learned more about this recent chapter in U.S. history. Although the book is often disturbing, shocking and upsetting, it is also inspirational and uplifting. It is a book you won’t soon forget.
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