Zeitoun and the Art of the Soft Sell

Note to all potential readers of Zeitoun: It is located in the Biography section at Barnes & Noble, not, as one who has read Dave Eggers’ other more-or-less-based-on-real-life-if-slightly-fictionalized works might suspect, in the Fiction/Literature section. Furthermore, remember that, in the Biography section, it is alphabetized by subject and not author; this is because people don’t really care who writes a biography.

This is the weird circumstance of Zeitoun, a biography about a man—and more accurately, a family—who is much less famous than the biographer. Eggers is one of a handful of writers universally included in any conversation about the “Voice of the Generation”—consideration earned largely off of his almost-living-up-to-the-title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Now, if you know anything about “VotG” discussion, you know that authors don’t stumble their way into such territory by keeping things simple and straightforward and understated. You have to do something pretty out-there, and you have to do it really, really well. That’s what Eggers pulled off in A Heartbreaking  Work, a memoir focused on how the deaths of the author’s parents and his subsequent raising of his much younger brother. It is a very personal book—obvs—detailing not only Eggers’ guilt-inducing desire to avoid walking through the room containing his dying mother, but also more mundane things like his unabashed appreciation for Journey* and his own masturbatory habits.**

*It was written in 2000, well before “Don’t Stop Believin’” was aired on Laguna Beach and became cool to like again. How do I know this? Because you couldn’t get away with writing something like “I worry about exposing him to bands like Journey, the appreciation of which will surely bring him nothing but the opprobrium of his peers” today.

**They were T.M.I. in his book; they’d be beyond that in this review.

A Heartbreaking Work also illustrates Eggers’ considerable playfulness. There are some very serious parts in the memoir, and yet its title page reads “This was uncalled for” and its copyright page includes Eggers’ self-placement on a sexual orientation scale (3, where 1 is perfectly straight and 10 perfectly gay).

What I’m trying to say so far is that Dave Eggers is something of a literary celebrity, and that having read a book about his own life that he titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I pretty much thought that everything I read by Dave Eggers would be tinted by the fact that it is written by Dave Eggers, in the same way that within a paragraph you know you’re reading David Foster Wallace or Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner.

And so this is the mindset I brought into reading Zeitoun, which I knew was serious and non-fictional and all, but which I suspected would still have Eggers’ fingerprints on it in some way, likely in an underlying smirking playfulness.

I was wrong, and the book is better for it.

The opening pages of Zeitoun are quite different from those of A Heartbreaking Work. There are no jokes on the title or copyright page, and the note about the book doesn’t make fun of the conventional “This is a work of fiction, etc.” template like Eggers does in his memoir. Instead, it states that the book is non-fiction but not meant to be “an all-encompassing book about New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina. It is only an account of one family’s experiences before and after the storm.”

The rest of Zeitoun is similarly understated. In that way, it’s kind of like a really long magazine piece, meant to be consumed in a sitting or two.* It’s basically broken into three parts: Before the Storm, During the Storm, and After the Storm, with the middle part constituting much of the story. The first part establishes the roots of the Zeitoun family, which includes the Syrian-born Abdulrahman, a painter; his native Louisianan wife Kathy, who helps him run his own business; and their four children—one of which is from Kathy’s previous marriage. Eggers does an excellent job characterizing Abdulrahman (more commonly known as Zeitoun) and his wife, giving us an early insight into the logic they’ll use to make their decisions during the storm.

*It is a short 335 pages, and I read it in under 24 hours.

With Katrina bearing down on them, Kathy evacuates with the family while Zeitoun stays behind—he always stays behind, during hurricanes or family vacations—to check on their various properties in the area. After the storm hits and the levees break, Zeitoun uses his second-hand canoe to travel through flooded streets, feed hungry dogs, and save residents trapped in their homes. An ardent Muslim, Zeitoun can’t help but feel that it was part of a divine plan to keep him in New Orleans, where he could be around to save others; it’s this feeling of purpose that keeps him in the city day after day as Kathy implores him to join her and the kids, first in Baton Rouge and later in Phoenix (the westward move resulting from a spending a bit too much time in a confined space with family). There are looters, she says, and the government keeps bringing in more and more military.

At this point, though, Zeitoun is swimming along: The conditions are less than ideal, but Zeitoun and Kathy are making the most of them. And then, with the waters receding and everything looking like it might get back to some semblance of normality, Zeitoun disappears. After hearing from her husband every day at noon since leaving (one of Zeitoun’s properties still had a working phone), Kathy doesn’t receive a call one day. And the next. And the one after that. As Eggers tells the story from Kathy’s perspective, we feel the same horror she does: the horror of uncertainty and the unknown. Is Zeitoun dead, or just lost? Does he need her help? How can she help? Can she get into New Orleans? Who’s running the city?

We then get the story from Zeitoun’s point-of-view, and it’s pretty much as bad as you imagine for a Syrian living in a state of emergency in the post-9/11 American South. What follows—no spoilers here—is nothing less than an indictment of the Bush administration and the work of FEMA in the wake of Katrina. Of course, it’s no secret that the two did a pretty poor job after Katrina; that doesn’t make it any easier to read about what happened to Zeitoun.

It’s all told in that understated style, full of Eggers’ declarative sentences describing Zeitoun’s living nightmare. In doing so, Eggers artfully employs the soft sell. Writing four years after the travesty that was Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, he isn’t screaming incredulously, “Why aren’t you outraged???” His point is not one made with italics and exclamation points, but with the tried-and-true journalistic principle of show, not tell.

And it works especially well because what Eggers shows us is strong enough to make its own case; it requires no imaginative pyrotechnics or authorial playfulness. It doesn’t need framing or footnotes or smirks at the reader. It is Exhibit: A in an argument against the United States government, and it doesn’t need a fancy cross-examination or closing statement from a big-city writer like Eggers.

It’s an account of one family’s experiences, but it’s one that’s absolutely called for.

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