Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

With two screenplays and a high-profile novel already in the can, 2009 is shaping up to be a busy year for San Francisco’s Dave Eggers. The writer, editor, and publisher has so many projects on the go, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook his other new work, the nonfiction book Zeitoun, a quietly devastating account of one man’s experience of Hurricane Katrina and its surreal, frayed, often Kafkaesque aftermath.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian-born long-time New Orleans resident who runs a successful contracting business with his wife, Kathy. Their life together is busy but satisfying: he drives around the city, matching clients with workers, while she manages the finances and looks after their various rental properties. (They also have four children.) As the book opens, the storm is already fast approaching, but Zeitoun brushes it off, confident that they’ve seen far worse.

Just about the only bum notes in Zeitoun are hit here, early on, where Eggers repeatedly overplays the story’s basic dramatic irony: both he and his readers know how wrong his stubborn protagonist is. Once Katrina hits, though, and Zeitoun decides to stay behind to help, floating through flooded neighbourhoods in an aluminum canoe, Eggers settles into a pure storytelling mode that’s sleek and compelling.

The book moves from one eerie locale to another, from the unsettling calm following the hurricane to an elaborate makeshift prison in a Greyhound station. Zeitoun is the most decent of men—rational, calm, and optimistic—but very quickly the devastation overwhelms him. “The numbers filled his head,” Eggers writes, after the levees break. “[T]here were a hundred thousand cars lost in the flood.…Millions of animals drowned.…Years, maybe a decade [to rebuild].” Then the mercenaries swarm in, ostensibly to clean up the city, and things take a horrifying turn for the worse.

Zeitoun is impeccably structured and bursting with empathy, but Eggers’s real success is in how thoroughly he camouflages his own authorial voice. He writes in poignant, straight-ahead prose that never clutters or dresses up the subject matter. The resulting book is so evocative and user-friendly that it will appeal to readers of virtually all ages; it wouldn’t even look out of place on a high-school syllabus.

McSweeney’s, 342 pp, $30.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, August 13, 2009)

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