Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

I've been a bit remiss about posting reviews here lately. Not that anybody minds. I have been reading, but the truth is that a couple of recent books have bogged me down in describing them and I haven't really had the time to do them justice.

The first of these books was ZeitounZeitoun probably got read more because of its famous author than because of the subject himself, and I'm afraid this probably had the opposite effect on me. Living in close proximity to San Francisco, with its renowned 826 Valencia Street writing center/pirate store, I've often wondered if the charismatic Eggers, who seems to have a kind of literary world version of the Midas Touch, isn't just a little too cool for school. And why do all his projects have to be so damned philanthropic and catchy?

Another excuse is that I'm just not much of a one for biography. I don't know why, I just don't gravitate toward it, even though I generally do like well-written ones if I happen to get around to them. Such was the case with this one, which I ended up reading as a bit of research for a project.

Eggers is a brilliant book designer and innovator, I think. His prose in longer pieces like this one, though, tends to be simple, solid and not flashy. He tells a good story in an understated, workmanlike way. And if ever a story needed a calm narrative voice, its this one.

Eggers would have had to search far and wide to find a better character around which to frame his telling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Abdulraman Zeitoun, universally known around New Orleans simply as Zeitoun is an American immigrant in the Horatio Alger mold. He is ambitious, hardworking and fair. He is also a Syrian-born Muslim. His wife Kathy is an American convert to the faith. Together they own a painting business and have slowly built up both wealth and friendship in the city.    

When the catastrophe that will be Katrina looms, Kathy evacuates with their children, but Zeitoun decides to stay and keep an eye on their various properties. He is able to help a variety of people and animals in the post-apocalyptic days that follow the storm, and also to be a witness to the incompetence and callousness that reigned in some parts of this situation. He is also to become a victim of it when he is wrongly arrested and incarcerated without due process in a makeshift prison that is thrown up overnight. Kathy too, now many miles away, is thrown into a terrible ordeal of not knowing what has happened to her husband.

Largely through Kathy's persistence, Zeitoun is eventually (emphasis on eventually) released. Their tale ends on a rather downbeat note. They are moving forward but the strain and suffering has affected them in many substantial ways. A more innocent belief in the American Dream has been ended.

However, this is not quite the end of the story. Because it is one thing to endure a tale of incredible and shocking hardship, but it's another to have that tale become the center of a book that is part of the McSweeney's empire. Zeitoun won the American Book Award in 2010. Eggers gave over all profits the book made to the Zeitoun foundation, which helps people still struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Katrina. The foundation is mentioned at the end of the paperback, and the book has been adopted in many schools as a course book. The Zeitoun family can't help but know that this is part of their story now too.

But this isn't the end of the story either, unfortunately. I was curious after reading the book where the family finds itself now. I thought time might have softened some of the traumatic impact of those days. Instead, I found the lesser known story that Zeitoun had been arrested in March of last year on charges of assaulting his wife. Though living next door to each other, they were estranged and the argument occurred when he came over to her house. Although he eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge of negligent injuring, this injurying was enough to send Kathy Zeitoun to the hospital.

You can draw many conclusions from this post-story story. Maybe the fabled life of the Zeitouns had never been what it seemed. Maybe it changed after Abdulraman's ordeal while imprisoned. Maybe even Egger's well-intentioned bringing their story into the spotlight had something to do with the unraveling of their marriage. Who knows?

I had some doubts about mentioning this last part. Zeitoun's story in the book is inspiring in itself and what happened to him an indictment of racial profiling. Who wants to be the one to point to the feet of clay in a story like that? Not me. There's a part of me that wishes I didn't even know it myself. I'm sure there will be someone reading this out there who will feel the same way.

But after what has actually been a rather long period of indecision, I felt that  I couldn't review the book without mentioning this other troubling side of things. It doesn't make the story told in the book untrue--it only makes the whole thing a lot more complicated.  The framing of biography is always somewhat subjective and incomplete, and endings in particular are largely arbitrary, unless they end with the grave. I'm sure there is still more story to be told in the Zeitoun saga.

For one thing, I hear there are plans for a movie.           


  1. "...it is one thing to endure a tale of incredible and shocking hardship, but it's another to have that tale become the center of a book that is part of the McSweeney's empire."

    I shall bear that comment in mind.

    This might be a good time for you to read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, if you;re not weary of post-apocalyptic New Orleans.

    "Zeitoun" is also Arabic for "olive." It's a cognate of the Hebrew word for "olive," and it has made its way into the languages of countries that fell under Muslim rule -- Portugal, for example, as "azeitona," a plate of which I was offered at every meal in Portugal.

    So the name is especially redolent of the Middle East, which makes the story one more piece of New Orleans' colorful history.

  2. Thanks for the name origin, Peter. And no, I'm not done with New Orleans yet. Not by a long shot.

  3. I shall look with interest for further posts about the city I will refuse of call the Big Easy.