Thursday, August 6, 2009

review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Every Thursday in August, Deckfight will contain something related to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Here's a review of Dave Eggers' new book.

by Dave Eggers
McSweeney's, 2009

For anyone that picked up What is the What, Eggers' methodology will familiar here in his new work, Zeitoun. Spend a whole lot of time with a few people, get to know them and retell their story. Eggers is starting to find his groove with this retelling method; it kind of makes me wish he would've done that teacher's book in the same way. Zeitoun, however, is supposed to be non-fiction, compared to the fictional liberties Eggers took with Achak Deng's story--incorporating interesting errata into the story because it may, or could have happened to Deng or someone who knew Deng or there were rumors of it happening. Instead, Eggers stays on the straight story with Abdulrahman Zeitoun a Muslim housepainter and contractor who decided to weather out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. His wife Kathy and their children end up waiting out the aftermath of the storm in Phoenix.

But with Zeitoun (the man), Eggers finds his own perfect storm--a Syrian Muslim left in New Orleans who is suspected of being a terrorist taking advantage of a natural disaster in America. Those looking to skip the rehash of a Ninth Ward disaster tale, don't worry, this is not it. Zeitoun is appropriate four years after--it's not the immediate story, this is the story of what goes horribly wrong in a disaster state, a state of disaster, a police state. To stave off too many spoilers, let's just say Zeitoun faces a legal mess and embarrassment of untold proportions.

Some may be familiar with Zeitoun's story from the McSweeney's collection, Voices From The Storm. Zeitoun assumed a first person oral account in that book, and here Eggers takes a more fluid third-person.

Maybe the previous exposure to this story knocked some of the fire out of Eggers, because his level of smooth detachment gives the book a so-so, careless feel, as if Eggers is so afraid of missing an important fact that all the life and style of the writer is sucked out. That method preserves the purity of Zeitoun's story and account, but more perspective of some sort would have served the story better. Not that Eggers should offer his opinion, but more comparison and incorporation of the other characters would have strengthen the story arc better. For instance, exploring Zeitoun's companions, Nasser and Todd or the mysterious Ronnie, more fully would have added depth to the story--almost like in a fictional work, as it would have been intriguing to see the pieces of their lives coalesce.

This American Life, the gray lady of cool non-fiction storytelling, writers put in their snide comments, and I dare say we're all the better for it (BTW-shouldn't this has been some type of This American Life/McSweeney's crossover event...come on, this would've been perfect...somebody get to work on that).

At the end, he does tell some of the stories of the cops that put Zeitoun in the situation, but instead of a complete journalistic work this is a full first-person narrative, as if Zeitoun took on some, but not all of Eggers' abilities.

The one time Eggers gets close to this is by isolating Kathy's experience for one week from Zeitoun's when they lose phone contact with one another. With this device, the suspense is elevated of course, and I think there are a few other moments when a similar function could have been used with some of the other characters.

For those looking for another
Staggering (I'm trying to use as many different words from the title of that work to refer to it, pretty soon I'll just use A), this is not it. This is not another You Shall Know Their Velocity! This story is just plain.

In fact it's kind of disheartening that these are so different from those, not that Eggers has abandoned his talents, but perhaps his better creative effort has been put into the management of McSweeney's, those pesky writing centers, movies, you know all that stuff, so that his first love(?) or his first claim to fame has kind of passed on.

A couple of practical suggestions--make a map of New Orleans, find some more photos of Zeitoun's destroyed house--the touches about Zeitoun's lost athletically gifted swimmer of a brother are nice, but surface--we get it, he came from seafarers and sailors of the Meditterranean who feared the strength of storms--maybe paralleled all of that with the story of his swimmer brother, instead of portraying Zeitoun remembering that--tell it from his brother's point of view, with more direct interviews or quotes from the family? I don't know, you're Dave Eggers and I'm not.

I never thought I would find myself questioning a Dave Eggers story. But I read this thing kind of in one day on vacation. I was completely gripped--maybe because I lived in New Orleans at the time, maybe because I'm a southerner and this is the South's 9/11--our lackadaisical ways are own comfort and undoing--and that miniscule but life-damaging tie to those two events kept me going--I was floored. So the story impels, not Eggers' writing necessarily. But it's to his credit to find and shape such an unlikely story--like finding a tin foil-encased diamond, we all want to know how it came about. What's left is Zeitoun's perfect vision, not an Eggers work. But maybe that was the goal all along, a book for Zeitoun and a book almost by Zeitoun.

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