Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

John Self beat me to a review of this book and did an exceedingly good job of it. No surprise in either of those facts. I will try not to repeat what he has said and to be brief.

Zeitoun (pronounced “zay-toon”) is the surname of Abdulrahman and Kathy, the people whose “view of the events” before and after Hurricane Katrina the book captures. John Self points out that Abdulrahman is “portrayed more or less angelically”. I would emphasize the more. For instance, the primary faults he displays are determination, unyielding fidelity to other living things, and the desire to be where the action is. These are his tragic characteristics which prove his stumble, if not his downfall.

Most readers will be familiar with the events, both real and reported, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. We know, then, where the weather portion of the book is going. Eggers had no easy task in setting up the Zeitoun’s story with sufficient details about the hurricane and reports to keep everyone onboard but not so much that it bores. His characters, too, walk the line between oblivion to the scope of the coming disaster and knowing too much:

Nagin told residents that the Superdome would be open as a “shelter of last resort.” Kathy shuddered at the thought; the year before, with Hurricane Ivan, that plan had been a miserable failure. The Superdome had been ill-supplied and overcrowded then and in ’98, with Hurricane Georges. She couldn’t believe the place was being used again. Maybe they’d learned from the last time and better provisioned the stadium? Anything was possible, but she was doubtful.

Of course, the reader already knows what happened, so Kathy seems a little prescient in her misgivings. I have to wonder whether relating the Zeitoun’s pre-Katrina fears on these types of policy matters is either accurate (surely everyone thinks they saw the disaster coming now) or helpful (even if accurate, the reader is almost invited to question the accuracy of the recollection). To me, these glimpses into the Zeitoun’s thoughts distracted from their story, rather than added to it. We have already been shown that Abdulrahman is a great guy, that Kathy is an outstanding mother, that they both work hard and live right. Must they also have such penetrating foresight?

This is really a minor annoyance; these examples crop up only a few times. Eggers does a great job relating the Zeitoun’s story with a building sense of danger, while helping us get to know the family. The bigger problem is the one touched on earlier. The Zeitoun’s seem almost like a sit-com family. I liked them, but I kept wondering if there was more to their story. While there are all-around great guys with all-around great wives and children, it was too neat, too Brady Bunch.

The strengths of the book are many. Abdulrahman’s experiences during the flood, rescuing people, dogs, and property, are particularly well-crafted and evocatively written. The same is true of flashbacks to Abdulrahman’s childhood and early adulthood. The man lived an interesting life and had an intriguing family. All of these aspect draw in the reader and give a strong sense of how Abdulrahman arrived where he did.

The climactic events are disturbing. The pain and confusion are captured in unadorned prose which only adds to the story’s power. This is the story of human tragedy amid natural disaster. The climax is strong and poignant. The reader cannot help but ask questions about how things could go so wrong in, as the characters say, America of all places. These types of things are not supposed to happen here. Of course, they do.
I was disappointed in the denouement, the aftermath. Too little information is provided regarding what happened to the other men with Zeitoun; each of the police officers and National Guardsmen who were involved are given a paragraph after the are tracked down by Kathy and the Zeitoun’s attorney.

There is no doubt that this tells the story of a breakdown in civil society and a personal tragedy for Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The book does not provide a complete picture, but only the experiences of the Zeitouns as related by them. Issues of Islamaphobia are present, but there were non-Muslims with Abdulrahman who, it appears, were treated no better. It also seems like a definite link is invited between Kathy’s later health problems and these tragic events. And, yet, in some ways the link feels too forced or speculative and, to me anyway, detracted somewhat from the larger issue. The systemic failures would not be less troubling if Kathy had suffered no physical deterioration.

The book is troubling, but imperfect. It is not wholly convincing. I am very happy to have read it and am quite troubled by the treatment of the Zeitouns and the other men with Abdulrahman that day. Like John Self, however, I would be interested in a different book that provided other perspectives. Not only to see the situation from the perpetrators point of view, but also to gain some necessary distance.

SPOILER ALERT

Zeitoun was clearly shaken by the events that day. His faith in America was understandably lost. His was not the kind of experience you merely remember; it was an experience which forms your world view. I came across an interview with Abdulrahman Zeitoun in which he states that, in America: “Muslims have no rights.” This is, to put it mildly, hyperbole.

Mr. Zeitoun’s statement suggests that there is a stronger, more powerful book, that is not limited to the perspective of the Zeitouns. Their close experience with injustice is an excellent case study in systemic failures in America; they are not necessarily the best witnesses. I would have preferred either a more novelistic approach to the subject or a more thorough investigation of events from multiple perspectives. Things went terribly wrong in the treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. But it is not as simple, as he points out, as a few “bad apples”. Neither is it as simple as “Muslims have no rights.” As many members of ethnic minorities can attest, this type of problem is not limited to Muslims. As many poor or otherwise socially disadvantaged people can also attest, this type of problem is not limited to religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the system either allows or creates incentives for this type of abuse. The extraordinary natural disaster that led to the particular example of the Zeitouns certainly exacerbated the problems of either unprofessional conduct by individuals and/or features of a criminal justice system that allow (or encourage) the abuses Abdulrahman and the other men arrested that day suffered.

Eggers did an excellent job of telling the Zeitouns’ story. He could have done more. The Diary of Anne Frank is compelling partly because she did not know what was going to happened, but the reader does. In Cold Blood is compelling because, while told largely told from the viewpoint of the criminals, it is not limited to their perspective. Eggers does not manage to escape the post-event perspective of the Zeitouns. The lessons the Zeitouns learned are not necessarily the right lessons. Their interpretation is, frankly, not as important as their experience. Eggers does manage to relate that experience, but it is a little too tinged with their interpretation to be an unqualified success. I do recommend it as a qualified success.

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10 Responses to Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

  1. Matt Rowan says:

    It’s funny, but I always find Dave Eggers’ work to be at best a qualified success.

    I mean, there is something definitely enjoyable about the way he writes. Actually, and maybe unreasonably, I would have called “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” an “On the Road” for the current age if only he hadn’t added the section written entirely by the secondary character “Hand” — which undermines the narrative way too forcefully, and suggested to me in the end a lack of confidence in the story he was putting forth, which frustrated me to no end.

    Anyway, I might have totally passed by “Zeitoun” if not for your review, so thanks!

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Matt.

    This was only my second Eggers, but I have much the same reaction to him generally as your, well put: “I always find Dave Eggers’ work to be at best a qualified success.”

    He is an excellent writer, but, in both books (this one and A Heartbreaking Work), I have found something a little off, a little lacking. He and I just do not quite connect the way I think we should (given his obvious talent).

  3. Sarah says:

    Excellent post, Kerry. Good point about the characters’ experience being more important than their interpretation. I am tempted to try David Eggers, but wonder if, in this case, it would turn out that I enjoyed your review more than the book…

  4. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Sarah. I would be tempted to suggest you start elsewhere. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would probably be more up your alley. There are aspects which, I think, would appeal to you. (Psychologically dark, yet playful too. For instance.) But I was not bowled over. I found it more heartbreaking than genius.

    Either way, thanks again!

  5. I’ve never been sold on any Eggers for some reason.

    And this won’t be the first. Frankly, it sounds trite. I hadn’t realised Zeitoun was a real person, I’m not sure that helps.

    It sounds as if it would be a better novel if the characters were more flawed, as you say. They needn’t be extreme, he doesn’t have to be a womaniser and her a drunk, but he could be self-righteous and yet still on this occasion right. She could be self-centred and short-sighted and what happened would still be wrong.

    Making people saints actually undermines the point. It’s wrong to treat people as they were then because they’re human, because that’s not how people should be treated. It’s not wrong because they’re really nice people, go down that road and if they’re not – if Zeitoun were a petty thief with a record for violent assault – the question starts to arise if maybe with these not so nice people the treatment’s not such a problem.

    It smacks to me of lazy thinking. It’s easy to sympathise with mistreated saints (well, actually it’s very hard but it’s easy to see that those mistreating them are in the wrong). It’s hard to sympathise with people who’re victims, but who didn’t behave that well themselves either. If Kathy tried to fiddle her insurance afterwards, that wouldn’t make what happened less appalling, but I suspect it would make a more nuanced novel.

    As I said over at John Self’s, I fail to see what this contributes that wasn’t done better by Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke.

  6. Kerry says:

    Max,

    Thanks. Those are all excellent points. You are absolutely right about the potential for a more nuanced novel than this book of non-fiction turned out to be. I realize that perhaps part of the point was that this could happen even to a successful, well-respected, all-around great guy. As you said, though, I think it actually robs the book of some power.

    I have not see the Spike Lee documentary. I may have to check that out.

    Thanks for the excellent comments!

  7. No idea why I thought this was a novel originally.

    Anyway, I’d rather have read a novel, or a book about the disaster more generally. But this is sort of neither.

    I thought this was a marvellous point from your review: “Their interpretation is, frankly, not as important as their experience.” Quite.

    And on the point Eggers is making that this could happen even to a successful and great guy. Well yes. But as I say, I think there’s a real danger with that of implying that somehow that makes it worse.

    When I was a teenager, my then girlfriend used to hate it when on the news they reported some girl being raped or murdered and if she was pretty they’d invariably focus on that, on what a waste it was that such a pretty girl with so much going for her had such a terrible thing happen to her.

    She hated that kind of reporting because it seemed to her they were unconsciously implying that if the girl hadn’t been pretty, the rape or murder wouldn’t be quite so terrible a thing. But of course, whether the girl was pretty or plain, had a lot going for her or very little, it’s still terrible.

    To only care when it happens to nice people, to people like we imagine ourselves to be, suggests to me a lack of compassion. Still, I’m criticising a book I’ve not read, which is always dangerous ground.

  8. Kerry says:

    Max,

    You may be on dangerous ground, but I agree very much with your instincts. I think the problem you identified is a very real one.

    SPOILERS

    Several other men were arrested with Zeitoun and all of them, apparently, were actually held longer. At least a couple of them were as innocent as Zeitoun, it would appear.

    END SPOILERS

    Anyway, best is your point about beautiful people. Beautiful people (particularly attractive, white, college-age women) constitute a disproportionate number of the people who go missing, it would seem from watching the news. I have my doubts as to whether that is actually the case. In a sense, Eggers does fall into that trap.

    SPOILERS

    I mean, Zeitoun helps old people, has a soft spot for dogs, and naively gives a ride to a hooker. And he’s handsome.

  9. RFW says:

    I’m always recommending this book, and know few people who have read it – seems this catastrophe has gotten old compared with the newest trauma.

    • Kerry says:

      It is good and worth a read. I think the failures of our government that this book illuminates are not specific to the Katrina disaster, however. The book is timely even if other world events seem much more pressing.

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