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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

January 26, 2014

Zeitoun

This is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant who owned a painting and construction company in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He stubbornly refused to flee the city despite the government-issued mandatory evacuation, the early warnings from the weather service and the pleading of his family. When his wife and four children left town, Zeitoun stayed behind to watch after his many properties and help meet demand from customers wanting their homes boarded up in preparation for the storm. His refusal to leave was, as he would admit, a mistake for which he bore sole responsibility. It’s hard to have sympathy for him in that regard. But what happened to him as a result of his poor judgment was, in a word, crazy.

There are beautiful, surreal moments in this book. Seeing the waters flow through his fence into his yard, into the home, slowly rising to fill his living room is mesmerizing even in print. Zeitoun paddling his canoe silently down the streets of the submerged city, floating over cars, over lawns, when the waters were still clear and clean, is an image that sticks with you. Zeitoun camping out in a tent on his roof, climbing through a neighbor’s window to feed their dogs, and other acts of kindness speak to the goodness of people. Then seeing the first body, being passed by fan boats loaded with soldiers, encountering gangs of thugs, the pollution that begins to cloud the water—there’s plenty of foreshadowing, but it’s hard to imagine how bad it will get for Zeitoun.

This book is a confluence of the two biggest events in U.S. history in the ‘00s: Katrina, obviously, and 9/11. Because Zeitoun is Muslim, he was swept up by a ragtag group of law enforcement officials. By whose authority they were acting is uncertain, and under what grounds Zeitoun was arrested was never made clear. He was never officially charged with anything, never read his rights, never given a phone call to even let his family know where he was. He was simply thrown into a makeshift, Guantanamo-style prison set up at the downtown Greyhound station for three days, then transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, another prison for 20 more days.

This is a story about the post-9/11 world, about prejudice and about system collapse. It is about Civil and Constitutional Rights being obliterated by a declared state of emergency. I recently read an equally shocking book about Katrina, Five Days at Memorial, which coincidentally overlaps with this story—there is a scene in which a man in a canoe, presumably Zeitoun, paddles up to the hospital, only to be turned away by armed guards. That book also has at its core a kind of madness that apparently seized upon otherwise rational people in the face of crisis.

Although Eggers’ minimalistic style (as opposed to his heavy post-modern style in his early novels) works well to let the story be the story here, he made a few narrative choices that I thought hurt this book. There are a couple of moments where he could have borrowed more from the way fiction is plotted—not to fictionalize it, but just tell it in a more compelling way. But maybe he consciously chose not to do that.

The bigger issue is that it feels like Eggers loved his subject too much, could find no fault with Zeitoun (There were a number of rather ugly incidents between Zeitoun and his wife after the events in this book which are easy to find with a quick Google search, but that’s not what I’m referring to). The effect is that I feel like the narrator can’t quite be trusted. This might be a true story about social justice, but Zeitoun doesn’t feel like a real character—he feels like a sanitized character or a character from a fable. It just felt off to me and, to my surprise, the book really suffers for it. I liked this book, but I expected to love it. I only loved parts.

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