Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

Books, Featured — By on May 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm

“In the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime,” says Cormac Mcmarthy in The Road.

This is also the quote that opens Zeitoun, the newest project from Dave Eggers. This strict nonfiction narrative account by Eggers is his first, and though different from some of his earlier work, remains equally astounding. Eggers, whose previous work includes What is the What and a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is also the literary mastermind behind McSweeney’s, which spawned such spinoffs as The Believer, Wholphin, and other creative literary venues, all proving that Eggers is more than just a talented writer—but a creator of a whole new genre of writing itself. His wife, Vendela Vida, and he just wrote the screenplay for the recently released film, Away We Go, and Eggers also wrote the screenplay for The Wild Things, released this past year. With Zeitoun, Eggers picks up a familiar theme apparent in What is the What, a humanitarian theme of justice.

Zeitoun chronicles the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the plight of a man named Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy. Though it is the true nonfiction account of this couple, it reads like a novel. Any research, outside information, commentary etc., is all told through the third person view of Eggers as he chronicles the plight of the Zeitoun’s. While the story centers on this couple, it is also the account of a city and a nation as a whole, a commentary on government, power, and humanity, in the midst of natural disaster. From the very beginning of the story, we find out Zeitoun and his wife Kathy are Muslim. Kathy is a local white southerner, but Zeitoun is an immigrant from Syria who moved to New Orleans in 1994. They run a successful painting company called Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC. Kathy handles the administrative work and Zeitoun, the workers and labor. They have four kids, are well connected and respected amongst friends and clients, and love New Orleans with zeal.

Zeitoun is a hardworking man, stubborn, determined and caring. This plays a huge part in the story as he decides to stay as Katrina approaches. As the storm decimates Katrina and passes, we find a worried Kathy, driven to near insanity as she awaits to hear from her husband. Already the reports are coming in, reports of looting, of murder, of rape. But Kathy’s anxious disposition is marked in stark contrast to Zeitoun, who, far enough away from the hub of downtown chaos, spends an almost pastoral couple of days paddling around in his canoe, rescuing people, saving dogs, remarking that he had “never felt such urgency and purpose,” and later that “His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will” He has contact with Kathy through one of their rental homes and assures her daily at noon that he is safe.

Fairly soon though, trouble meets Zeitoun as the violence escalates, and more and more armed personnel are sent into the city. And one day, Zeitoun never calls. As far as Kathy knows, he has disappeared. No trace. The phone still works and she calls endlessly, to no avail. Inevitably she fears the worst.

What happens next (Spoiler Alert!) is the heart of Eggers’ work as Zeitoun is shackled and unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. government. He is read no rights, he is read no charges, he gets no phone call. Zeitoun is thrust into a situation reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib. And this is where Zeitoun really works, as it expands into a dense commentary on natural disaster, foreign policy, racism, and governmental authority. But what makes it work is Eggers himself, who refuses to engage in any taking of sides. He presents the story as is, and has neither side commentary, nor political agenda infused into the writing. The story tells itself, and Eggers lets the reader feel the rage of circumstance, rather than inserting his own voice.

When asked by Stephen Elliot in an interview for Rumpus, why he chose the story of the Zeitoun’s over others, Eggers remarked that, “their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .” Eggers has placed us into a story that is all of a sudden bigger than we could imagine.

Like What is the What, Zeitoun becomes the chronicle of those in the margins, the overlooked. Just as What is the What, examined the life of a refugee Sudanese lost boy by the name of Valentino Achak Dang, Egger’s becomes once again a “voice for the voiceless.” Thought it may not be obvious to a sensory glance, much of Eggers’ work is linked closely to his heart for social engagement and humanitarian work. Zeitoun itself was born out a McSweeney’s project entitled The Voice of the Witness Series, a nonprofit book series that “empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social justice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises in the United States and around the world.” Such topics in the past have included the world of illegal immigrants, prisoners faced with wrongful conviction, and Sudanese refugees. The Voices in the Storm issue included the Zeitoun’s story and Eggers felt that it was too rich not to be told in full.

Already highly known for his national youth writing centers, 826 Valencia, he continues with such stories as those of Dang and Zeitoun. For both books Eggers set up foundations for Dang and Zeitoun, with all author proceeds from Zeitoun going to the Zeitoun Foundation, whose goal is to help in the rebuilding of Katrina and promote respect for human rights around the world. For Dang’s foundation, an educational building complex was opened that serves 100 students.

It is refreshing to hear a powerful literary figure like Dave Eggers has a heart for the oppressed and the injustice of the world. It is refreshing to hear that it has always been on Eggers heart and that he did not suddenly pick up the “humanitarian banner” once he was famous.  In fact, Eggers even tried to give away the profits from a Heartbreaking Work (his first big book) but was sued by his agent. Egger’s rejects the literary rock star status and uses his work and platform to preach a message larger than self profit, even though his rejection of money and signing away of royalties caused him to go unpaid for four years. Regardless, Eggers has written as book that is equal in both literary and humanitarian merit. Zeitoun is a staggering portrayal of the human condition, human resolve, and the perseverance of hope through tragedy.

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  • Josiah says:

    Ooooh, excited to read it! I just finished his novel form of The Wild Things and enjoyed the book as a supplement to the movie.

  • Jacob C. says:

    This book looks good. I loved What is the What. Thanks for sharing, Levi.

  • Colin says:

    Hey Levi,

    Awesome review. I’m about 1/3rd into Heartbreaking Work and really enjoying it although I couldn’t get into his novelization of Where the Wild Things Are.

    Both Zeitoun and What is the What are on my to read list.

    Hope all is well in Utah! You’re missed.

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