This August 29 will mark five years since Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on New Orleans, a city that was like no other.
The city and entire Gulf region still bear the imprint of the epic destruction.
Many people who left there have never returned, despite their profound desire to do so.
The biblical devastation has led to an outpouring of books from authors like historians Michael Eric Dyson and Douglas Brinkley and journalists like Jed Horne, who worked along with the rest of the heroic Times-Picayune staff to put out the paper throughout the crisis.
While President Bush, FEMA and Michael Brown’s callow handling of the hurricane and its aftermath have received plenty of well-deserved derision, people’s choices to stay and wait out the storm have gotten less.
Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun tells the tale of a Syrian-born immigrant and well-respected businessman who sends off his wife and their four children, initially helps hurricane victims and then becomes caught up in the vicissitudes of post-September 11 anti-terrorism paranoia.
Many thanks to dear friend and reader Cheryl Flack, who lent the book to Dunreith and me.
It is hard not to be aware of Eggers’ many contributions to the literary scene.
In addition to his own writing, which has moved from his recounting of his life after losing his parents to chronicling individual stories like Zeitoun’s that both contain gripping personal material and that highlight injustice, Eggers has created the publishing house McSweeney’s, Voices of Witness, a series of books that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises, and 826 Valencia, a project that works with young people in cities to improve their writing skills.
In Zeitoun, he focuses on the 47-year-old Muslim businessman.
Zeitoun ignores the many pleas of his wife Kathy, an American who converted to Islam, to leave, choosing instead to stay to look after their many properties and wait until the water recedes.
Having purchased a canoe, Zeitoun initially finds that, despite the extent of the hurricane’s damage, he is making a contribution by paddling around and helping elderly people and dogs who are trapped in their homes.
He feels stronger than ever before and, in fact, feels himself both serving his deity and possibly approaching the accomplishment made by his brother Mohammed, a champion swimmer.
Then the police come.
In the midst of the daily call he places to Kathy, who first in Baton Rouge with family but later goes west, Zeitoun goes to the door to see who is knocking.
She does not hear from him for weeks.
Without giving too much away, I will say that Zeitoun gets caught in the harsh and Kafkaesque world of anti-terrorist detention. He suffers tremendously, losing 20 pounds, enduring nearly unbearable pain in his infected foot and size, having his daily requests to call his wife denied, and having his hair change color.
A devout man of faith who loves his adopted homeland, he also sees both tested at the most basic level.
As searing as these experiences are, the lasting toll on Kathy seems to be even greater.
Eggers’ use of detail and narrative shifts leads to a compelling story. I will wrap up the post now for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but do hope you find the time to read this gripping work.