The guy who reads at Running Downhill reviews something actually published within the last 12 months. It just so happens to be a 336 page definition of the work “injustice.” Happy Holidays. I am terrified of the Current Events shelf at Borders. I have a deep irrational aversion to it. There’s something about all the glossy dustjackets, all of them with photos of the author more prominent than the title of book, all of the authors wearing navy blue suits and power ties (Ann Coulter included) all of the titles in embossed gold lettering. It makes one revulse.
So I was reluctant when a friend suggested I read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers three-years-in-the-making account of a New Orleans man who stayed behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t have read it all, despite her recommendation, if she hadn’t physically deposited the book into my hands. Not only am I averse to current events writing, but I generally don’t enjoy non-fiction altogether. And while I respect and envy Eggers’ publishing empire (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern literary journal, The Believer and Wholphin magazines, and the 826 education centers) I had never read any of his actual writing, and was just a little wary of exposing the man behind the curtain and being disappointed.
My fears, in all regards listed above, were unfounded, and I read the book in about four days. Zeitoun is the real-deal actually-happened story of one Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-cum-American living in New Orleans with his American wife, Kathy, and their many children. Eggers spends a fair few pages making sure we all understand how wonderful of a person Zeitoun is, which I won’t recap here. Just trust me when I say he appears to be incredibly honest, happy, hardworking, dedicated, fairminded and compassionate. A fundamentally good man in a way unlike anyone you or I know, et cetera et cetera. As Hurricane Katrina nears, Kathy and the children flee to Baton Rouge and then Phoenix. Zeitoun stays behind to look after their house and their successful painting and restoration business, the several rental homes they own, and his neighbors property. While doing so, he saves the lives of at least three old people and four dogs.
Just as he’s thinking everything is under control and he should leave the city too, he is arrested without warning. He’s carted off by military personnel, never charged, put in a distinctly illegal and inhumane temporary prison, accused of terrorism in the most simple minded of ways (as in being told by a soldier “You guys are Al-Qaeda,”) never offered outside contact, a phone call, an attorney, or even an opportunity to explain himself. He was carted off to a Federal maximum security prison and no one knew where he was. In Louisiana. In America. The part of America that’s really into being America, too.
There was a point in this book where I considered putting it down and not finishing it. That’s how utterly infuriating and horrifying Zeitoun’s ordeal was to read about. Every single person Zeitoun tried to reach to for even the smallest, most basic courtesy, treated him with a contempt that disgusts me as a human being. Even the prison nurse refused to lend him assistance. What made the book hard to read at times was not the writing, the writing is capable, direct and without affectation, and not even the details of what happened to Zeitoun, because he was never tortured or subjected to violence, with the exception of demeaning ass-searches and psychological manipulation, but the fact that dozens of other people refused to acknowledge that Zeitoun was even human. For each of them, regular folks who would have been outraged beyond belief if something similar had befallen them or theirs, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was turned into something else, something deserving of nothing but scorn, mockery, insult and harm.
The best books are not just books, but manage to move beyond themselves, beyond the story they contain, and impart some truth to the reader. They hint at something larger. Eggers does this in Zeitoun – his story is clearly bigger than just what befell Zeitoun. Without being a political tract, like so many of the navy-blue-blazered books on the first shelf on the left at Borders, Eggers’ book is a subtle and incredibly strong indictment of… of…something. I don’t know what. Perhaps this is why it shouldn’t even be considered akin to Current Events books. Blame for what happened to Zeitoun could lay anywhere, does in fact lay at the feet of many, many people because scores were complicit in their refusal to help. But really, the book is about something even larger than that, something that is very broken at the core of America. Yet Zeitoun defies relegation to the gruesome depths of political writing. Rather, like all great stories, it about many, many things. It’s about fear, racism, humanitarianism, sacrifice, compassion, ignorance, malfunctioning bureaucracy, God, and water. But more than anything else, really, it’s a book about what happens when when we let our institutions lose sight of the fact that it is with human beings that they deal. It’s about what happens when we forget about People (not the magazine).
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Pub:2009 by McSweeney’s Books
Page Count: 347
Page Count without acknowledgments, thanks, author’s notes, and list of charities to receive proceeds from the sale of the book : 336.
Out of context quote: “The water was too deep to wade into, its contents to suspect to swim through. But there was the canoe. He saw it, floating above the yard, tethered to the house. Amid the devastation of the city, standing on the roof of his drowned home, Zeitoun felt something like inspiration. He imagined floating through the streets of his city. In a way, this was new world, uncharted. He could be an explorer. He could see things first.”
Pen names used by the author: Daniel O’Mara, Lucy Thomas, Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-On-Whey