I (Ben) doubt anyone who read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it came out questioned that Eggers was capable of a tremendous literary career. But I also doubt anyone would’ve predicted that, within a decade, he’d have written a book like What Is The What, a novel based on the life of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. Both books are high-wire acts, beautifully executed. But whereas Heartbreaking was hilarious, show-offy, postmodern and abrasively clever — a battle royale between brutally self-conscious irony and genuine sincerity — What Is The What was an entirely different animal: disciplined, subtle, unaffected, and, yes, heartbreaking. The guy has range.
With Zeitoun, Eggers has written something even greater. Although it is undisguised non-fiction, Zeitoun shares many similarities with What Is The What — the story of an American immigrant, facing exceptional circumstances past and present, whose story says something bigger about America today. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a New Orleans painter and contractor who stayed behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina while his wife Kathy and their children fled for Baton Rouge. Eggers sketches out Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria and his immigration to America to reveal a hard-working, enterprising and humane man. Eggers also captures an honest account of the Zeitoun’s unconventional marriage. They are equal partners in their family-run business, as committed to their clients and employees as they are to one another and their family.
Except when their clients cross a line: One woman repeatedly berates Kathy (the phone contact) for a painting team that has not met her standards, even though it has gone above and beyond the terms of agreement. After Kathy tearfully relays the conversation to Zeitoun, he rushes to the worksite and pulls his team out, mid-job. When the woman’s husband questions what is going on, Zeitoun calmly says that no one talks to his wife that way, and that the job is done.
On another occasion, a client ( “a Southern belle in her sixties”) calls Kathy in a panic when the painting crew arrives at her house. “I don’t like these men,” she tells Kathy.
“What’s wrong with ’em?” Kathy asked.
“They’re swarthy,” she said. “I only want white people working on my house.” She said it like she was choosing a kind of dressing for her salad.
“White people?” Kathy laughed. “Sorry, we’re fresh out of those.”
Eggers adds, “Every so often, would-be clients could not get past Zeitoun’s last name. They would call for an estimate and ask Kathy, ‘Zeitoun, where’s that name come from? Where is he from?’ And Kathy would say, ‘Oh, he’s Syrian.’ Then, after a long pause or a shorter one, they would say, ‘Oh, okay, never mind.’ It was rare, but not rare enough.”
After the levees were breached, Zeitoun used a canoe to paddle around the neighborhood and check on his sites. He finds people stranded on their roofs and brings them water and food. He finds dogs left in their cages, crazed with starvation, and delivers them meat. He rescues a large, elderly woman clinging to a bookshelf for over twenty-four hours to stay afloat. Zeitoun and a friend find a way to hoist her into the canoe. They certainly saved her life. (The fan boats patrolling the neighborhoods would have drowned out the woman’s cries. Only by canoe could a would-be rescuer have heard her.)
While Zeitoun says his prayers in the morning, rescues lives by day and sleeps in a tent on his roof by night, Kathy panics in Baton Rouge at the images on TV. New Orleans is being overrun by looters. The water is becoming toxic with waste and chemicals. There are supposed murders and rapes taking place at the Superdome. Kathy and Zeitoun talk once a day by phone, and she pleads for him to leave. Zeitoun firmly believes God has kept him in New Orleans for a reason. He tells her he will stay.
Then Zeitoun and three others are arrested, in one of Zeitoun’s rental houses. They are given no reason; an armed man barely glances at Zeitoun’s ID. The four are transported to an abandoned Greyhound terminal where they are handcuffed and strip-searched. Zeitoun asks if he can make a phone call. He is denied. Then the four are moved to a staging area of outdoor fence-link cages, much like a kennel. (It is dubbed “Camp Greyhound.”) They are thrown inside without explanation. Unruly prisoners are tear-gassed. Meals frequently consist of pork, which Zeitoun, a devout Muslim, resists.
It gets worse. I was obsessed with following Katrina coverage, but I read nothing about the makeshift prisons or what happened to looters, looting being what Zeitoun was ultimately charged with. Another such suspect: Merlene Maten, a seventy-three year old diabetic who checked into a hotel prior to the storm. Days later when she went to get food from her car, police arrested her for suspected looting. She too was sent to Camp Greyhound, where she — like the others — slept on concrete. She later spent two weeks at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women before being freed.
The elemental disaster of Katrina — the storm itself, the flooding, the submerged houses, the bodies floating face down — has been well-documented. The images are impossible to shake. The human disaster — what happened to Zeitoun, who became nameless and faceless, unable to contact his family, detained under uncertain jurisdiction, suspected of terrorist acts, an outsider during a precarious moment of American paranoia — is what Eggers brilliantly, infuriatingly captures. What’s most impressive is the way he does it. Zeitoun is a hopeful book, free of cynicism. It is straightforward and matter-of-fact. Eggers, who was criticized for fictionalizing Deng’s voice in What Is The What, disappears from the story at the same time he establishes himself as a master storyteller. He uses none of Heartbreaking’s tricks to tell this particularly heartbreaking, but ultimately redeeming, story. That, like Zeitoun’s life itself and how he survives a nightmare ordeal, is a remarkable achievement.