Zeitoun

Last month, my bookclub read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. This month, we’re going in for a more hard-core novel: Dave Egger’s Zeitoun.

Beforehand, I wasn’t quit sure I’d like it. I read Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in high school, with didn’t really resonate with me. But I do enjoy Egger’s stories that sporadically appear on This American Life, and I loved The Wild Things. So I decided to go into the book with an open mind.

And I’m glad I did. I’m putting my thoughts under a cut because I know at least one of my fellow bookclub members reads my blog and hasn’t read the book yet, and I don’t want to spoil things for her.

The plot: “through the story of one man’s experience after Hurricane Katrina, Eggers draws an indelible picture of Bush-era crisis management. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-born painting contractor, decides to stay in New Orleans and protect his property while his family flees. After the levees break, he uses a small canoe to rescue people, before being arrested by an armed squad and swept powerlessly into a vortex of bureaucratic brutality. When a guard accuses him of being a member of Al Qaeda, he sees that race and culture may explain his predicament. Eggers, compiling his account from interviews, sensibly resists rhetorical grandstanding, letting injustices speak for themselves. His skill is most evident in how closely he involves the reader in Zeitoun’s thoughts. Thrown into one of a series of wire cages, Zeitoun speculates, with a contractor’s practicality, that construction of his prison must have begun within a day or so of the hurricane” (New York Times Editorial Review).

When I started the book, I didn’t know Zeitoun was going to be arrested and held without rights to a phone call, to a lawyer, to all the things that supposedly make the American justice system great. So I was just enjoying the picture Eggers painted of Zeitoun, living in a tent on his rooftop, feeding dogs and helping people get out of their houses and making sure everybody had water. And then, bam, he gets arrested and the name Al Qaeda falls and everything changes and it becomes much more high-paced.

The New York Times Book Review calls Zeitoun “the stuff of great narrative fiction”, and I agree with that. I think Eggers had a kind of non-fiction voice in this book, if that makes any sense, and that worked very well here. It made sure I didn’t forget that this book is based on a real family, which a more fictionalized account might have. (On the topic of a non-fiction voice, I think that might have been what put me off … Staggering Genius. Anyone who has read the book care to comment on that? Eggers doesn’t use it in The Wild Things, and I’m wondering about his other books.)

I also liked how Eggers introduces us to islam. Zeitoun and his American wife, Kathy, are muslims, trying to live out their lives in an integer manner. Kathy converted before she met her husband in a kind of spiritual quest following a divorce and a general sense of being ungrounded.What I found especially interesting is that what she found in islam (peace, a sense of direction, love), I found in christianity. So that goes to show you that people really aren’t that different after all.

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