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?
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.