Dave Eggers can apparently do it all. He blew away critics in 2000 with his big, bells-whistles-and-kitchen-sink memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, after which he founded McSweeney's, a publishing house that produces a literary quarterly, a magazine, and quarterly DVDs of short films. In 2006, his "fictionalized memoir," What Is The What, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now, it turns out, Eggers is also a tremendously gifted writer of narrative nonfiction. So good, in fact, that his new work is the best book this reviewer has read so far this year.
Zeitoun tells the true, closely observed story of one New Orleans family and their experiences of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath -- a story that allows Eggers to penetrate into both the goodness of America's psyche and its darker dysfunctions. Critics too often state that a new book isn't just a story, it's "about America." In this case, Eggers has produced exactly that -- a book that's not just about America, it's as all-American as it can be, with its wide vision and its clear portrait of individual courage in the face of officially sanctioned stupidity. The irony is that it's an all-American book whose main character is Syrian.
That main character would be Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a middle-aged U.S. citizen, originally from Syria, a father of four, and owner of a very successful contracting business. He loves his adopted country, particularly his chosen city, New Orleans, and takes good care of his family. Zeitoun's wife, Kathy, is a quick-witted, Southern Baptist-raised white woman who converted to Islam (even after years of marriage, her hajib is still a problem for members of her family). She and her husband and four kids live in a large, old, refurbished home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, where she helps him run his ever-growing business.
Eggers builds his story gradually, starting two days before Katrina's landfall, traveling back and forth in time to give insights into his characters' lives. Zeitoun as a boy in Syria, learning how to sail; Kathy's first, disastrous marriage, how she discovered Islam and then met Zeitoun. Eggers' three-dimensional portraits, delivered in crisp, "unflowery" prose so unlike his earlier work, make the Zeitoun family easy to relate to, and suck the reader into their lives.
As the hurricane approaches that Friday, Kathy and the kids flee to Baton Rouge to stay with her contentious relatives. Zeitoun decides to stay behind and "watch the fort." They both expect her to return by Monday.
Katrina hits on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, with greater force than Zeitoun expects, yet the next morning, the damage -- some broken windows and a few roof leaks -- is manageable. The following day, however, he awakes to deep water in the streets, after the city's levees were overtopped or, in some cases, broken. He rescues as many valuables and heirlooms as he can, moving everything possible to the second floor. Soon, the first floor is under six feet of water.
What follows is a lifetime of surreal adventure in a few days, as Zeitoun paddles around New Orleans in a 16-foot canoe he'd bought secondhand. On the first day, he and a friend rescue several elderly New Orleans residents trapped in their homes, and he feels that helping people was the reason God had led him to stay in the city as Katrina drew closer. He sleeps in a tent on a flat part of his roof, then gets up at daybreak and hits the water in his canoe, checking things out, helping whenever he can. Every day, the water looks worse, smells worse, and pretty soon an atmosphere of anger, despair and even treachery takes over the submerged city, and it becomes harder to decide who needs rescuing and who could be a danger. Meanwhile, Kathy, fed up with her relatives, drives to a friend's home in Phoenix, where she and the kids wait out the post-Katrina disaster.
Then one day, six armed officers in military apparel come to Zeitoun's house. He takes for granted that they've come to help, but he's soon taken away in cuffs, at gunpoint. They think this Syrian guy paddling around New Orleans is a terrorist. No outside contact is allowed and Kathy, after not hearing from Zeitoun for six days, assumes he's dead.
Rather than spoil the rest of the book, we'll stop here, but suffice it to say that Eggers' book is a marvel: simple yet moving and eloquent, gentle yet reaching deep to the heart of his very human story of one family, unflinching from tragedy but in the end, cautiously hopeful. There are other books that give a broader view of Katrina and its aftermath -- Breach of Faith by Jed Horne and The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley are especially good -- but Eggers' portrait of one American family's astounding experiences, of their own country after the storm, is no doubt the "Katrina book" people will be talking about years from now.