Great nonfiction doesn’t always start with a great subject, but it helps. Dave Eggers treads extremely carefully around Zeitoun protagonist Abdulrahman Zeitoun, whose life puts him astride several contemporary American preoccupations, but his remarkable tale needs no such protection.
The Syrian-born Zeitoun (called by his last name to give his customers a break from pronouncing his first), a former sailor who traveled the world before landing in New Orleans, decided to wait out Hurricane Katrina and keep an eye on his booming contracting business and properties around the city. In the days following the flooding, he used an aluminum canoe to survey the damage, visit with friends similarly stranded, and even rescue a few neighbors, as his wife Kathy—an American-born divorcée and former Southern Baptist who converted to Islam in her 20s—and their four children sought shelter in Houston and then Phoenix. Though he lost the first floor of his house to Katrina, Zeitoun saw the rebuilding as an opportunity—until his arrest and disappearance into the morass of post-storm bureaucracy, where his ordeal takes a terrifying turn.
Eggers interviewed Zeitoun and his wife for an earlier book in the McSweeney’s-affiliated “Voice Of Witness” series of firsthand accounts on Katrina, but he seems hesitant to let anything upstage their story here. The language he uses to describe the storm-ravaged city is almost self-consciously plain; at times, the repetition of phrases and scenes—Zeitoun’s conversations with his brother in Spain during Katrina, Kathy waiting by the phone after his arrest—lack an elemental grace that would not have been out of place even dealing with an episode that passes into the realm of nightmares.
A more elaborate style could not possibly have pulled focus from the ordeals of the Zeitouns, whose troubles intersect in two of our national tragedies of the 21st century. As bad a hand as Katrina dealt to the Zeitouns, the treatment they received from their country was far worse, and even the abrupt final pages revealing their fates can’t detract from that. As Kathy calls around, unable to wring the location of her husband’s hearing from state bureaucrats, even though she’s gathered a dozen character witnesses to testify to his place in New Orleans, the devastation her husband lived through looks almost mild. However cautious, Eggers’ careful recording and research into the Zeitouns’ post-Katrina lives preserves their ordeal for a country too bent on forgetting.