One-Minute Book Reviews

January 21, 2010

A Victim of Hurricane Katrina, Then of FEMA

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The story of a man who stayed in New Orleans when others left

Zeitoun. By Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s Books, 349 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Like Infidel and A Long Way Gone, Zeitoun tells such an important story, you wish you could believe more of it. Dave Eggers gives a captivating if hagiographic account of the plight of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a well-off Syrian-born painting contractor and landlord who refused to leave New Orleans when the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city during Hurricane Katrina.

As the book has it, Abdul Zeitoun stayed to look after his buildings when his wife and four children fled to Baton Rouge. Then he traveled by canoe through the flooded New Orleans streets, performing humanitarian acts such as rescuing trapped people and feeding abandoned dogs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was not impressed. More than a week after defying the evacuation order, Zeitoun was arrested. And he says his jailors refused to let him to make a phone call — to his wife or anyone else – and deprived him of other rights while implying that he belonged to the Taliban.

If all of this is true, it adds to the damning evidence of FEMA’s mishandling of Katrina. But Eggers writes from point of view of the Zeitouns, and their accounts are often self-serving or inconsistent. In one vivid incident, Zeitoun returns to check on dogs – no breed specified – that he had fed by crossing a plank bridge he rigged up between a tree and the house abandoned by the animals’ owners. He finds the pets dead: “The dogs were just under the windowsill, a tangle of limbs, heads to the heavens, as if they had been waiting, for weeks, for him.”

This scene, on first reading, seems heartbreaking. But it holds up poorly under scrutiny. Zeitoun casts himself as wholly innocent, but his repeated entry into a stranger’s house was – for however worthy a reason — tempting fate when the police were watching for and arresting looters. And the incident reflects questionable dog behavior. Eggers says that after feeding the abandoned pets, Zeitoun left a window open so they would have fresh air. Dogs can swim and leap out of windows. And Eggers gives us no reason to believe that the dogs he describes, in their desperation, wouldn’t have tried. Like much else in Zeitoun, the incident may have unfolded exactly as he says. Or it may be nothing more than a great story.

Best line: “This day he ventured closer to downtown, passing families wading through the water, pushing laundry tubs full of their possessions. He paddled by a pair of women pushing an inflatable baby pool, their clothes and food inside.” Zeitoun has many details like these that make you see life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Worst line: “Laying on sweat-soaked sheets, he had a thought.” Was one of those thoughts: What’s that difference between “lie” and “lay” again?

Published: 2009

Furthermore: Eggers’s books include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist about the civil war in Sudan.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, including the book publishing industry, at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

10 Comments »

  1. Welcome back.

    My temptation would be to read this book primarily hoping it delivered a strong sense of place–what the town was like in the aftermath of the hurricane. Yet if we’re going to view this as nonfiction, we expect the facts to add up or at least appear reasonable within the knowledge and viewpoints people would have had at the time certain events occurred.

    Comment by knightofswords — January 22, 2010 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve looked at Zeitoun a number of times, but have always shied away because I felt that What Is the What suffered from the same problem – details that MIGHT be true, COULD be true, but in general didn’t really FEEL true. It does seem that an account of someone like Zeitoun should be strong enough to stand on its own without embellishment. Thanks for the review – I think you just saved me some time AND money!

    Comment by Weekend Reader — January 23, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

    • “MIGHT be true, COULD be true”: Excellent summary of the issue here. Complicating the story told in Zeitoun is that the Zeitouns filed a lawsuit about Abdul’s treatment. And you wonder if they spun some incidents in a way that would favor Abdul’s case — not necessarily by making things up but perhaps by leaving out things that wouldn’t have helped them.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 23, 2010 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  3. Experimentation and pushing boundaries and good: Most great writers do it. The issue for me is that when you push the boundaries, the story has to ring true (and fiction can sometimes right truer than a memoir).

    By my lights, Zeitoun doesn’t always do that, and I wondered at times if this one might have worked better as fiction. But it’s easy to second-guess the author …

    Thanks so much for your comment.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 24, 2010 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  4. I’m not sure I follow you on this one. Turns out that I just finished reading Zeitoun this morning so it’s fresh in my mind. It sounds like you are raising questions about how accurate the account it, and it doesn’t seem that it is any more or less guilty of distorting what really happened than is any other biography or autobiography. That is the nature of memory and everyone is likely guilty of shading things a bit to make their story seem a bit more tragic/heroic/frightening/beautiful/etc. I certainly didn’t hear anything in this story that made me think anything more than usual was going on here. I certainly would look for something more convincing than the dog story quote you cite as evidence. You use the word inconsistent, but I really didn’t find anything there that smacked of inconsistency.

    But the part of your review that I found harder to buy was your argument that going in to those houses to help those dogs was tempting fate. I try, in such cases, to put myself in his shoes and I could see myself doing the same (even if in retrospect it might have been foolish). At the time he thought he was trying to do good by helping others including dogs. In fact, he felt like perhaps he was called by God to be there for just this purpose. Of course he later kicks himself for having been so full of hubris, but in the context of the story, and given what information he had at the time, I can’t really blame him for his acts of compassion. I did wonder at the time why he didn’t just take the dogs with him and keep them at his house, but it didn’t strike me as a foolish act at that point in the story. Plus, it ends up playing no role whatever in his eventual arrest. He’s in the house with others when authorities show up at the door (something later corroborated through interviews with those doing the arrest). What strikes me as wrong about your critique here is it seems like a classic example of blaming the victim. Now it is possible that he isn’t as innocent as you suggest, but there’s no evidence of that whatever. The only way you get to that conclusion is by assuming guilt to begin with, something the authorities involved seemed to do.

    So, my sense is that your criticism isn’t really very fair in this case. That said, I do think the book is open to criticism, and perhaps you are picking up on something but attributing blame in the wrong place? To me, I found the story compelling, but the telling of it not up to the task. I know Eggers is brilliant and all, but I felt underwhelmed by his delivery. I never felt like I got inside the characters even though he puts all his chips on that number. It felt more like someone telling a story about a story than of hearing it through the words and thoughts of the characters involved. Even though the overarching story was compelling, I just didn’t the internal drama as told was. I also think he cheated in terms of the structure of the story. He begins the book giving a day-by-day account of what is happening, going back and forth between Zeitoun’s and Kathy’s stories. But then Zeitoun disappears and his story drops off the map. This is clearly done for dramatic purposes, but I found it to be an annoying contrivance. I also think the story suffers from his attempt to tell it only through the eyes of the couple. This ends up being a too narrow/claustrophobic focus (esp. given my sense that he fails to deliver on its full potential). I would have liked to hear more about what is happening with the other major players in the story (other than Zeitoun’s brother). Then the end of the story feels rushed and tacked on. His attempt to portray Kathy’s struggles with post traumatic stress seem feeble at best and I didn’t find those portrayals to lead to a sympathetic response from me. I thought that had more to do with how it was written than what actually happened.

    So, my basic take on the book is that the Zeitoun’s story is more than worthy of being heard, but I wonder if Eddings’ reputation exceeds his performance in this instance.

    Comment by Jon — January 25, 2010 @ 3:14 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your thoughtful critique, Jon.

      “I wonder if Eggers’ reputation exceeds his performance in this instance”: Agree. And I might not have expressed made my point about the dogs as well as I could have. At first I shared your view that Zeitoun was showing admirable compassion for the dogs, and he may have been doing that.

      But as the book went on, I began to question whether the incidents involving the dogs (live or dead) occurred as Eggers described them, or maybe whether they occurred at all. Hard to explain why. The dog scenes just felt “off” to me in a way they might not to someone else. I’m a passionate dog-lover, with hands-on experience with a variety of breeds, and many people might have no trouble with parts of the book that bothered me.

      A number of other scenes troubled me, too (though, again, I agree that you should try to give the subject the benefit of the doubt). And there have been enough iffy memoirs lately that critics have to be hyper-vigilant about inconsistencies and the like, because some editors clearly aren’t vetting memoirs as well they should. Which isn’t too say I couldn’t have been too vigilant in this case …

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 26, 2010 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  5. #4 “And unlike Roth (who has, for example, at times in the past boundaries at times without telling the audience at all, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and fact).” Interesting. I hadn’t thought of Philip Roth here, but I’ve read books where he does blur the line and can see why you mention him. Your comment could help book clubs and others who are dealing with that issue.

    No question that Eggers is doing his best, or that he has humanitarian aims that go far beyond those of most authors, which is admirable. My point is just that, like most critics, I take as a starting point that every writer has done his or her best, and that it’s the reviewers job to try to say whether or not it works.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 27, 2010 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  6. […] finish the book: Citizen Reader. For a questioning look at the stories told and how: One Minute Book Reviews. For all the rest and more: Fyrefly’s Book Blog Search Engine […]

    Pingback by Zeitoun « Care's Online Book Club — August 18, 2010 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  7. […] books about how Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the Gulf Coast, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun? If so, how did they compare to Salvage the Bones? Which book showed the effects of the devastation […]

    Pingback by A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ With Discussion Questions for Book Clubs « One-Minute Book Reviews — February 15, 2012 @ 1:54 am | Reply


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