Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is an award-winning work of narrative non-fiction. Lauded enthusiastically and critically acclaimed, Zeitoun chronicles the life of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. Written in a economical style, akin to dramatic journalism, the book unfolds gracefully, pulling the reader into a Job-like story. The Zeitouns ran a successful painting business in New Orleans. Frames of reference are effectively arranged, cutting between Abdulhaman’s childhood in Syria, his travels, Kathy’s upbringing, their family, and the network of friends and family that enriched their lives. We learn of their hopes and their fears. Eggers paints a picture in the first part of the book of good people working hard and doing good things, all with the threat of the hurricane hanging over the narrative.
While Kathy and the children flee New Orleans, Zeitoun (he goes by his surname) remains to take care of his business and home. Canoeing through the flooded metropolis, Zeitoun rescues the stranded, feeds animals and helps others with an accidental assemblage of characters. The hurricane itself is not the focus of Eggers’ prose, but rather the state of quiet but frightening anarchy in the days after. As Zeitoun paddles through the city, Eggers chronicles an almost other-worldly spectacle, an almost dystopia.
Zeitoun and his colleagues are ultimately arrested, held incommunicado for more than three weeks, and brutalized – all without the benefit of explanation or anything approaching due process. Kathy and Zeitoun’s friends and family are frantic for him, while he is kept in a hastily constructed cage and deprived of medical care and basic human dignity. The overwhelming injustice and indifference are palpable, yet we, the readers, like the characters in the book, are without explanation or understanding of how or why it happened. Is it still our world or some other world in which rules and accountability do not matter? Simple racism and fear only take us so far in trying to figure out how this could happen in the United States, a nation governed by laws.
Zeitoun is released without explanation and as he attempts to rebuild his family and his business, we learn almost as an afterthought of the contingent circumstances that led to his arrest and imprisonment. Attempts at understanding and finding individuals collapse, leaving little sense of justice or even the possibility of justice. A traditional man versus the elements narrative turns into man versus a hostile government, but as government disintegrates, so, too does the drama. All that is left is sadness and a lingering sense of injustice with no appropriate target.
Several reviewers of Zeitoun describe the book as a critique of Bush-era management of the Katrina crisis. Bush, however, is far removed, as are the policies and decisions that created the Kafka-esque machines that net Zeitoun and eventually spit him out. The injustice and wrongs that drive this work stem from a much deeper collapse, a lack of faith in the larger collective of government and society. One of the ways in which this book is effective is that it reflects and refracts political assumptions.
The structures and values that give the Zeitoun family meaning and stability are Islam, family and a network of friends and business acquaintances. There is no government authority, real or imagined, before the storm, save for warnings of Katrina mediated by the media. When government does arrive, it is hostile, impersonal and inhuman. No possibility of successful collective work through government appears in these pages, and those that work for the government only gain individuality when distancing themselves from their employer. Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution” has so permeated Zeitoun’s world that even the possibility of government providing relief seems utterly impossible. Sealing the critique, the FEMA trailer delivered can never be used for the keys to unlock it never arrive.
Zeitoun’s New Orleans is a tribal society, comprehended and lived through local networks. Justice and decency can exist among individuals. At a broader, society level, however, they are elusive and almost meaningless abstractions. The Zeitoun Foundation, mentioned prominently in the afterward, is one of several not-for-profits that offer the angry reader some potential for action. A little late, but still something.
It is a very sad story.