Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review of Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Stories poured out of New Orleans after Katrina. I was a sophomore in college and we were supposed to get “refugee roommate” from Xavier College, which had been heavily damaged in the storm. He never came. Two years later I went to the Gulf Coast with a volunteer program through my school. Even then, the evidence of the devastation was still glaring. Next to newly renovated homes there would be abandoned houses gutted, muddied paneling marked with an X by searchers, the date it was searched, a designated body count and notations for any hazards. Dig your hands into the soil and you’ll probably come up with a shard of pottery, a piece of a plate, part of a mug’s handle. Millions of pieces of plates and cups and bowls, all broken and swept out of houses by rising and receding flood waters, buried now in the soil of the Gulf Coast.

Stories, for the most part, were all we had. Media coverage spread a thick layer of violence and misery over the gulf coast in one course stroke. National Guardsmen and law enforcement who went into New Orleans, in particular, were prepared for roving bands of heavily armed men, snipers, and mass looting. The city’s police chief spoke about babies being raped. But when law enforcement got there what they found were mostly normal people in trouble. People who wanted to get out.

Zeitoun, is a non-fiction account of a family’s struggle after Katrina; a struggle not only with nature’s power to devastate, but also the devastative power of those who wield authority over us in the wake of disaster.

Zeitoun is titled for Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American, who owns a successful painting and contracting business in New Orleans. His wife, Kathy, a convert to Islam, helps him run their business, and they both raise their four children. As Katrina reaches the shore, Kathy leaves New Orleans with their children, but Zeitoun stays to look after their properties and repair any damage to their home as it happens. He’s stayed through other storms. This one would be no different.

The storm passed and Zeitoun left his house to survey the damage. Trees were downed, panels of roof were ripped off, and windows were broken. There was damage but it was not the worst he had seen, and everything could be fixed. The world was quiet and it seemed he could even call Kathy and his family could return. Then the water came. Zeitoun watched as the water level rose from 6-inches to 2 feet, then 5 feet, then 9 feet. He could no longer go downstairs in his house. The sight of New Orleans under water challenged reality.

“Though every resident of New Orleans imagines great floods, knows that such a thing is possible in a city surrounded by water and ill-conceived levees, the sight, in the light of day, was beyond anything [Zeitoun] had imagined. He could only think of Judgment Day, of Noah and forty days of rain.”

At night he could hear the dogs barking lonelily at the dark.

“The neighborhood was full of dogs, so he was accustomed to their barking...But this night was different. These dogs had been left behind, and now they knew it. There was a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shreds.”

With the world he knew underwater, he rode through this new one in an old canoe he bought from former tenant. His wife begged him to leave; but he situation had changed. Where before he had merely stayed to look after his properties, he now rode around looking for people to help, dogs to feed. Zeitoun came from a family of sailors, and his explorer’s spirit took over:

“He wanted to see everything that had happened and would happen with his own eyes. He cared about this city and believed in his heart he could be of use.”

At first Zeitoun’s experience was like the water that flooded New Orleans, itself, clear and not yet dirty. He felt that God had kept him in New Orleans to do good, so he stayed and looked around for what good he could do. But the water grew dirty with oil and detritus: dead animals, chemicals, branches, and cars. Similarly, the atmosphere of New Orleans grew steadily more poisonous. More police, Army, National Guard, and military contractors were arriving. On television, officials were threatening the “armed gangs” that battle hardened soldiers were being sent in to restore order at any cost. Zeitoun even saw a group of these armed looters and did his best to avoid them. Kathy nearly drove herself mad thinking of the thousands military contractors, the Army, the police, the National Gaurd, all those guns.

“Kathy added it up. There were at least twenty-eight thousand guns in New Orleans. That would be the low number, counting rifles, handguns, shotguns.”

The thought of a her husband alone in New Orleans with all of those guns, a Syrian man in a city under a sort of martial law in post 9-11 America. Something bad was going to happen to her husband.

Then Zeitoun disappeared.

What follows is a view of the maddening and frustrating dichotomy that draws and repulses the world away from America. The questions and answers raised by Zeitoun’s story, the specters of hope and cruel indifference that weave themselves into every story that we tell about ourselves make this an essential book.

Zeitoun is writer Dave Eggers’ latest accomplishment. Author of five books including What is the What, about Darfur, Sudan, and A Heart Breaking Piece of Staggering Genius, a memoir laced with fiction, Zeitoun lives up to Eggers’ extraordinary ability. For the book, Eggers interviewed Zeitoun and his family over a two year span. His research took him from New Orleans, to Jableh, Syria, to Spain. Though non-fiction, the book reads like a novel. Eggers is able to capture the spectacle and horror of a flooded New Orleans and reveal a story that peels back the assumptions and old cliches of the American story that we take for granted, and reveals something raw and true, with grace and humility.

Simply Zeitoun is beautiful. You should read it.

Authors proceeds from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation. It’s purpose is to “aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans and to promote the respect for human rights in the United States and around the world.”


Max Nova said...

It's a funny coincidence I saw this just after putting down an old issue of McSweeney's.

To play devil's advocate a bit about Egger's work, would you say there's a bit of an unseemliness to What is the What as it's a "novel" which is ostensibly another person's life?

Is Zeitoun classified as fiction or non-fiction? It sounds like this time Egger's has craft this as more proper non-fiction.

Matt Lindeboom said...

First, let me say I'm a huge fan of what you play devil's advocate.

"Zeitoun" is non-fiction.

I wouldn't say there is any unseemliness. "What is the What" is a great contrivance: Biography told though the voice of the person it's about, by another writer. For this reason and more it's regarded as fiction. Eggers actually answered this question when Stephen Elliot from asked him:

"Elliot: I guess people will want to know why you chose nonfiction for this and fiction for Valentino Deng’s story in What Is the What.

Eggers: I definitely concede that it’s odd, given they’re both forms of biography. But with Valentino’s story, there were too many events and time-periods that we had to cover but were so long ago that Valentino’s memories weren’t sufficient for nonfiction. So in some cases I had to take an event about which he might have remembered a skeletal amount, and then flesh it out a bit given the historical record and personal observation and some re-creation of dialogue. What Is the What is Valentino’s true story, but it’s not strict nonfiction in that we can say, Yes, back in 1988, on October 31, Valentino was standing in this one spot. But of course all the events in What Is the What are based closely on Valentino’s experiences."

This actually raises the issue that memoir and biography pose to a writer. The writer has to walk the line between fact and fiction that is often so thin and blurred one can not tell where one ends and the other begins.

Sometimes I think that all memoir should be labeled as fiction. Others I'm merely agnostic.

In the end I think Eggers has chosen his labels well. He marketed "A Heartbreaking Piece of Staggering Genius" as a novel, but Barnes & Noble puts it in the memoir section, next to Zeitoun. Shows you what B&N thinks of the line between fact and fiction.

The issue boils down to a hypothetical: Can you write down what you did yesterday in detail -- actions, encounters, emotions, whims, the stuff of humanity -- and honestly, without hesitation, conclude that it is 100 percent fact? I can't.

So it is up to you to decide what is fiction and what is non-fiction. In what quantity and quality can the two mix before one over powers the other? You have to be careful. Dave Eggers is definitely careful. James Frey, however, not so careful.

Max Nova said...

Well put all around, so here's another question as you mention Mr. Frey. He exaggerated his drug addition and so has David Sedaris, and for the most part no one cares that Sedaris uses hyperbole.

Why does humor get a pass, huh?

[That was more of a rhetorical question, really.]