By Dave Eggers
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39906-9
The first thing you notice about the paperback edition of this book, about a married couple suffering through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is the praise. It’s the first thing you notice because you can’t miss it. It’s the first seven, eight, nine, (no, wait, there’s some of the back page) TEN pages of the book. You’d think “Zeitoun” was “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (another Eggers’ title). But the praise overload is fittingly ironic because when Bush 2 spun the deadly hurricane into an empty aria about the brave American spirit, even Mama Bush (Barbara) got into the act. (She suggested that camping out in a stadium was a step up for most New Orleanians. Most New Orleanians thought not.)
The Zeitoun of the title is Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a New Orleans married couple and their two daughters dealing with, first, a flood of biblical proportions and then bureaucratic blunderings (racial profiling, accusations of terrorism) worthy of a Joseph Heller novel. For the sake of surprise no spoilers will be revealed here. Suffice to say that cataloguing each new humiliation Eggers’ becomes something like Rodin’s The Thinker, and the Zeitouns the helpless souls he’s looking down on as they wither and flail in the seven circles of governmental hell.
Interestingly, while Eggers still writes beautifully, he now seems to write intentionally beautifully. For instance, the opening scenes of Abdulrahman recalling magical nights of fishing for sardines in Syria (the gathering fish looked like “…a slow mass of silver rising from below”) is just too perfect, poetic and lulling a description in a book this blunt. He needs a hard word in there because having things too perfect (and then too awful) is such a clichéd American way to write. Still, that’s a minor complaint for a book that deserves every bit of praise the mainstream media have given it. As well, genre-wise, “Zeitoun” is the latest in a hopeful publishing event. Like the vastly superior “Columbine” (by Dave Cullen – who really did write “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) it’s non-fiction that’s more engrossing than any fiction.