Dave Eggers: Zeitoun

Dave Eggers is such a one-man industry – editor, publisher, founder of various good causes – that it’s easy to forget that he’s primarily a writer, and one who can write well, at that.  This busybody status probably explains some of the criticism he attracts, but I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees whatever work of his I’ve read.  One of the good causes, the Voice of Witness, is a series of books of oral history aimed at highlighting humanitarian causes around the world.  It was a voice in one of these which bloomed into Zeitoun.

Zeitoun is a book named after a man: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, American businessman, celebrated painter, building contractor and property developer/landlord (but the good kind: you know, like a tart with a heart of gold) of New Orleans, Syrian-born and married to Kathy.  August 2005 should be like any busy summer month – “with so many people leaving, fleeing the swamp heat … the work and worry never ended” – but the reader knows what lies in store, for Zeitoun is not a novel but an uninflected representation of its real protagonist’s real thoughts and experiences.  Eggers has effaced himself from the prose (no bad thing for those who found the self-satisfaction of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius hard to take), but presumably directed the narrative, such as giving us cute snapshots of family life, to show how the Zeitouns – Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, their four children – are the perfect American family.

When she was five, Zeitoun came home from work for lunch one day and found Nademah playing on the floor.  She looked up at him and declared, “Daddy, I want to be a dancer.”  Zeitoun took off his shoes and sat on the couch.  “We have too many dancers in the city,” he said, rubbing his feet.  “We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need teachers.  I want you to be a doctor so you can take care of me.”  Nademah thought about this for a moment and said, “Okay, then, I’ll be a doctor.”  She went back to her coloring.  A minute later, Kathy came downstairs, having just seen the wreck of Nademah’s bedroom.  “Clean up your room, Demah,” she said.  Nademah didn’t miss a beat, nor did she look up from her coloring book.  “Not me, mama, I’m going to be a doctor, and doctors don’t clean.”

Even the gaucheness of the anecdote – the ‘didn’t miss a beat’, the whole Kids Say the Funniest Things-ness of it – give it authenticity, as coming from Zeitoun’s lips and not Eggers’.  Similarly, the foreshadowing of the disaster to come – “Neither of them [Zeitoun and Kathy] could operate their home, their company, their lives or days without the other” – is like the sunny preamble to an episode of Casualty.

The clearness of the prose, the concealed art, makes for a suspense more intense than a thriller.  The reader knows approximately what happens but not exactly how, and is driven partly by a perverse interest in seeing how bad things will get for Zeitoun.  The answer is very bad indeed (like, sorry to spoil it for you).  This is in part because of Zeitoun’s stubbornness, “his unwillingness to bow before any force, natural or otherwise”, his insistence on remaining in New Orleans even as Hurricane Katrina is upgraded and the city authorities recommend evacuation.  His family leaves but he doesn’t.

Zeitoun would not be a dramatic, disturbing book if its focus was simply on the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, or even on the scale of the devastation, “homes burning and sinking into the obsidian sea that had swallowed the city.”  Its real aim is to illuminate and outrage on the subject of how the authorities did and did not respond to the disaster.  Eggers says:

It’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants; a judicial system in need of repair; the problem of wrongful conviction; the paranoia wrought by the war on terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .

The last is present in Kathy’s conversion to Islam, some years before she meets Zeitoun.  Although her conversion is ultimately spurred by personalities rather than dogma, she finds both openness and revelation in Islam that she didn’t expect.  “She had no idea, for example, that the Qu’ran was filled with the same people as the Bible – Moses, Mary, Abraham, Pharaoh, even Jesus.  She hadn’t known that Muslims consider the Qu’ran the fourth book of God to His messengers, after the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament.  … The fact that the Qu’ran repeatedly reaches out to the other, related faiths knocked her flat.”  She does not experience much reaching out toward her by her fellow townspeople after she adopts traditional Islamic dress.

This is a book of witness, a voice edited and professionally presented.  Inevitably, therefore, Zeitoun is portrayed more or less angelically, and the authorities who deal with him are not.  How accurate is this?  I felt it would be interesting – albeit the job of a different book – to read an account from the viewpoint of the soldiers and government workers, trained and cultured by fear of terror, and fear of otherness, into robbing people of their humanity because they believe them to be their enemies.  They are in their own way victims too.

The word “Zeitoun”, before reading the book, is an unknowable sound; while reading the book, it is the name of a man; after reading the book, it becomes a sound again, a signifier, a two-syllable yell of frustration representing what is wrong not just with one administration in one country, but with aspects of our civilization.  It shows with clear eyes and plain talk that the agents of government could commit human rights abuses not ‘just’ in Abu Ghraib, not ‘just’ against “enemy combatants”, but on American soil, and against their own people.


  1. I recently finished this John, devouring it quickly, and finding it to be a vindication of Eggers as a writer after the debacle that was The Wild Things. My own thoughts will be up on the blog next week but well done for such an eloquent reading of the book here.

  2. I’m always impressed by the new and interesting directions Eggers takes with his writing. But sometimes they can sound a little off-putting in their aim. I think I wouldn’t have been that tempted to read this from the blurb alone, but your review really pulled me in, and I’ll be grabbing a copy of this ASAP.

  3. I enjoyed his comments in the recent Guardian/Observer interview, particularly the ‘eight hours of self-loathing to get half an hour’s worth of decent writing’ admission (probably wildly misquoted there but the salient facts are covered!). Eggers may well have run out of original ideas years ago, but that’s probably to our benefit considering the intriguing direction he has taken with the last two books.

  4. John – just a quick few words to say this blog is terrific. I only discovered it recently but regularly look at it for recommendations made both on your own posts and of course the almost unanimously excellent comments added by your readership.

    Secondly – and sorry to drag this off topic for a moment – as a recent arrival to Northern Ireland from England, I’m on the lookout for good bookshops. I know central Belfast reasonably well from countless visits in years gone by, but now I’ve made a permanent move where can I head other than Waterstone’s? I’ve found a few gems in the Oxfam shop on Botanic Ave and I recall a smallish second hand place near Queen’s Uni (for some reason I’ve an idea it’s up some street level stone steps). If you can give me any further pointers I’d be hugely grateful. I’ve been mostly buying online, which is fine for now, but you can’t beat the book shop experience! I’m living within very easy reach indeed of Belfast city centre.

    And just to bring us back onto topic, I’ve got a copy of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius on my shelves which is, erm, as yet unread…

    Thanks in advance John, keep up the fine work.

  5. Hi Chris, and thanks for your kind comments.

    Belfast isn’t very well served for bookshops (as you’ve discovered), but there are a few worth seeking out. No Alibis, on Botanic Avenue, deals mainly in crime and American fiction but can order in anything else. The owner David is very friendly and they have regular events.

    Then there’s the Bookshop at Queen’s, mainly academic but with a reasonable fiction section.

    I don’t buy many secondhand books, but a recent discovery for me means I may do it more often in future. It’s a secondhand bookshop, The Bookstore, on North Street – which as you may know is the rather run-down street near the up-and-coming Cathedral Quarter. It has a fantastic range, better than Waterstone’s, and I keep meaning to go back (and am quite glad I haven’t, because I know I’d buy too many books if I did).

  6. I have been turned off by everything of Eggers I’ve read or partially read. But I am intrigued by his range. This sounds like something that just might make me rethink this whole Eggers thing in my mind. Perhaps another reason this appeals to me is that it is starting to get trendy this dislike of Eggers. I don’t really want to be a part of that.

  7. Good review John. I’ve just read an essay on Hurricane Katrina by Andrew O’Hagan in The Atlantic Ocean.He follows two men one white and one black, both poor, who decide to go to New Orleans to help in the aftermath. It would be interesting to compare the two as in both cases the example of real life experiences seem to be somewhat fictionalised. The only question I would ask is where the boundaries between fiction or faction lie? Since the new journalism of the 60’s it’s been difficult to separate the two though it’s produced some terrific writing.

  8. John,

    This was an excellent review. I received this for Christmas, but have been sidetracked with Tournament of Books reading. It was going to be my first review after the Tournament (or my reading for the Tournament) wrapped. Now, I have the advantage of your insights which, I hope, will make my reading experience richer. It is impossible to get ahead of the curve you set, but any frustration is more than compensated for by the enjoyment and provocation your reviews provide.

    What I am saying is, thanks for whetting my appetite.


  9. I made it to the shop on North Street this afternoon. Wow, a real book shop! You could spend all day there and still need to go back. I’m not sure I’d have happened upon it by way of passing trade given its location, so thanks for the tip. I stopped at nine books, I’d have been there all month if I hadn’t stopped.

    Thanks very much for the recommendation!

  10. Hm. It sounds possibly a little simplistic, I think it’s your comment that Zeitoun is treated angelically, the authorities not. The response to Katrina was itself a disaster, and at times a travesty of abuse and prejudice, but I’m not persuaded saints exist and I’d be concerned at a loss of humanity in the service of polemic.

    Have you read any James Lee Burke? I’d heard that his crime novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown, was one of the best treatments of the disaster in fiction. I’ve only read one Burke, which was admittedly pretty good, but in a sense it’s natural territory for the crime novel which so often examines society and its hypocrisies and finds it wanting.

    It’s curious, I’ve never seen a bad review of Eggers, and yet I’m never tempted. I didn’t know as Trevor comments that it’s becoming fashionable to dislike him, I’m not sure I can dislike an author I’ve not read, but I do wonder what this brings to the party that Spike Lee’s marvellous documentary When the Levees Broke hasn’t already.

  11. I haven’t read any James Lee Burke, Max, but I have had him recommended to me before, so this probably represents some kind of tipping point at which I should take action. I also didn’t know about When the Levees Broke, so should seek that out. I expect though, that Zeitoun is not trying to be comprehensive, but the reverse: a specific case which does, nonetheless, indicate wider failings.

  12. The problem with the Burke is it’s number, I think, 14 of a series. How well it stands if you haven’t read the previous 13 I can’t say.

    If you enjoy crime fiction, as I do, that’s not such a problem as you just read the others and get their eventually. If you don’t though, it’s potentially more of an issue.

  13. A mate of mine swears by Burke and the bit I’ve read is very good stuff, a more elegant Pelecanos maybe? But my crime chops are not what they perhaps should be.

  14. I’ve read the first one, and enjoyed it enough to buy the second (I enjoyed it more than the Pelecanos I read actually, now I think of it). Most of these guys improve over time (Ross Macdonald for example), so it wouldn’t surprise me if the more recent books are the strongest. That said, it wasn’t up there with say William McIllvanney, but then few things are.

  15. Interesting timing on this review popping up again. Mrs KfC and I have rewatching the DVDs of Season V of The Wire, which of course includes the story of the reporter who invents homeless responses (among others) to build his story and falls into an ever-widening trap of further false information. Alas, for those of us who were in the business, the phoney journalism angle is an all-too-common phenomenon. David Simon knows that and he does a great job of (tactfully) exposing it.

    That’s the problem that I have with Eggers’ alleged non-fiction — I simply do not believe it. Capote admitted that his novelist mind overtook his journalist one in In Cold Blood (heck, as a teenager when the original excerpts appeared in The New Yorker I could tell that) but Eggers continues to present exaggerated reality (that would be fiction in my mind) as the real truth. And that is why I find books like this to be cruelly exploitative, in the worst possible way.

  16. Yes, me too, Trevor! Tell you what, Kevin, one of these days I’ll review a non-fiction book by a journalist (like, say, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which I finished recently), and you can reciprocate by reading one of these books before you decide to hate them!

  17. That’s not what I meant, Kevin — not at all! I loved that debate and was glad to bring it to mind, particularly with Eggers, whom I do not like.

      1. I have baseless prejudices lying all over the place, John! (though, with Eggers, I’ve tried some of his work and have been very turned off — this could be the book, though, right?)

  18. I will admit I won’t be going to his new movie or reading his new screenplay or his novel either. Scam artists are scam artists, despite their sales. I do feel sorry that he exploited the Zeitouns.

  19. “Exploit” is an interesting word choice, Kevin. (“to benefit from or at the expense of”, says my dictionary) Has Eggers benefited from Zeitoun? Probably, in kudos, from those who think it right that he brought the Zeitouns’ story to a wider audience (though, balancing that, others will think him a “scam artist”).

    He derives no material benefit though, as the proceeds of the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, set up by the Zeitouns and Eggers, which promotes the rebuilding of New Orleans and interfaith initiatives. Some might say that if others benefit from this, then that balances out Eggers’ cruelty and exploitation.

    It would be a mistake, however, to consider the Zeitouns to be a naive couple taken advantage of. Kathy Zeitoun, if not quite the Rosa Parks of Muslim America, was certainly forthright in standing up for her religion before Hurricane Katrina, and Zeitoun himself was a successful businessman with dozens of employees and properties.

    Incidentally, Eggers’ background is not in fiction but in journalism, as detailed (along with other ‘frequently asked questions’ about the book) here.

  20. I’ve just read Zeitoun which I enjoyed but it wasn’t the book I expected it to be. Perhaps I didn’t read the reviews closely enough but I assumed the focus of the book would be the hurricane itself and its aftermath. Instead it was a terrifying indictment of the post 9/11 paranoia in the USA and its brutalising effects. Depressingly, nothing I’ve read about Obama’s recent decisions would suggest that anything has changed. Previously I’d read an excellent article in one of the Best American Writing compendiums about the flooding of an old people’s home post Katrina – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who the author was – and I suppose I thought Zeitoun would be more in that vein. Nonetheless a very satisfying read with good pace and suspense but just the tiniest hint of sentimentality as you imply in your review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s