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TBTS Review: Zeitoun

July 12, 2009

True empathy is scarce. Yes, following the horrific events of Hurricane Katrina, it was the widespread sentiment that what occurred in New Orleans was an unavoidable act of God, and my, those poor people. Oh, just, so sad.

It’s not until you dig—really dig deep—before one can realize the travesty of post-Katrina, and just how inhumane the conditions were. Babies were raped, shit was slept in, and human rights were flippantly breached. Dave Eggers has—again—written an immensely powerful non-fiction novel, this time following a family consisting of a Syrian-born patriarch and his wife, Kathy, a converted Muslim.

Zeitoun, the book’s protagonist and family’s surname, owns a successful contracting business in the city. As the storm bears down on the gulf coast, Kathy and the children break for safer ground, as Zeitoun stays back to maintain his properties. As the storm raged, a mandatory evacuation was issued, but Zeitoun decided to remain in New Orleans, saving those who couldn’t save themselves while floating down the streets on an old canoe. Eventually the National Guard enters the city, arresting Zeitoun and three others. Charges are never formally brought, but the men all spend various amounts of time in prison—for doing nothing.

The story then is told from differing points of view: Kathy, safe in Arizona with the children, desperately seeking any news of Zeitoun to relay to his relatives strewn about the globe; and Zeitoun himself, living in hell as a result of no wrongdoing of his own.

Again, Eggers is masterful in relaying a harrowing tale of human rights ignored. In 335 pages, Eggers only once drifts from the voice of story-teller, never becoming the verbose writer that often muddles non-fiction. In the close of the book, though, when the reader is desperately seeking clarity and a reassuring voice, Eggers dips to a soothing calm, perfectly tidying the emotional mess that was the prior 300+ pages.

Still, he can’t save you, and there is no choice but to finally reach real empathy, while simultaneously feeling guilt for not being sad enough in the aftermath of Katrina.

The book, frankly, is frightening. Not in the hackneyed, “how can we treat people this way?” sort. Instead, it becomes a much more alarming rhetorical: “People are treated this way?”

It’s an easy read telling a terribly heartbreaking, though redemptive, tale.

  1. Caleb permalink
    July 12, 2009 2:19 pm

    Powerful stuff, Evan. Thanks for sharing.

  2. July 12, 2009 10:47 pm

    Dave Eggers is a great writer. I can’t wait to get my hands on this, he exemplifies creative nonfiction as it’s practiced today. (Take that, Augusten Burroughs.)

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