Monday 29 March 2010

'every soul shall know to what it is prone'

by Dave Eggers

I have a suspicion that Egger's real forte lies not in fiction but in his creative non-fiction. His public-spirited and beneficent nature is clear from his formation of the 826 Valencia organisation back in 2002 (I wonder how many other authors have plowed back the money earned from a runaway success in such a useful way). His last book, What Is The What, drew attention to the plight of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan, fusing autobiography with the novel form- Deng's story in Egger's words is the simple way of putting it I guess. With his latest he takes Abdulrahman Zeitoun as his hero, in order to tell the inside story of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that highlighted some of the worst aspects of the United States' social and political systems and the lasting impact of an event like 9/11.

Zeitoun, as he is known by most people (they tend to struggle with his first name), runs his own company, Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, with his wife Kathy acting as every member of the business's office. Married for eleven years, Kathy is a convert to Islam whose Louisiana drawl helps to put clients at ease although occasionally their name can cause problems when possible clients call up.

'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, nevermind.' It was rare, but not rare enough.

But in their adopted city the Zeitoun's had built a large family, a successful business and fully enmeshed themselves into a community that valued the services of a man like Abdulrahman, a man with an integrity, work ethic and love for this city that is plain to see.

High ceilings, a grand winding staircase descending into the foyer, hand-carved everything, each room themed and with a distinct character. Zeitoun had painted and repainted probably every room in the house, and the owners showed no signs of stopping. He loved to be in that house, admiring the craftsmanship, the great care put into the most eccentric details and flourishes - a mural over the mantel, one-of-a-kind ironwork on every balcony. It was this kind of willful, wildly romantic attention to beauty - crumbling and fading beauty needing constant attention - that made this city so unlike any other and such an unparalleled sort of environment for a builder.

Living in New Orleans the residents are more than used to storm warnings, treating them with a nonchalance us weather-obsessed Brits might find hard to credit. Tropical storms tend to dissipate before reaching land so that the news and its warnings become little more than background noise most of the time. But as the severity of Katrina continues to grow Kathy keeps pushing for the family to leave. Zeitoun is not a man easily moved though and feeling the need to keep an eye on their business he elects to stay as Kathy loads up the car and heads off to her brother's in Baton Rouge. At first it seems as if Zeitoun's scepticism about the storm is well placed; the rainwater builds up and then drains away, winds come and go, all is close to calm again. But he is woken one night by an uncanny noise.

The sound continued, something like running water. But there was no rain, no leaks. He thought a pipe might have broken, but that couldn't be it; the sound wasn't right. this was more like a river, the movement of great volumes of water.
He sat up and looked down through the window that faced the back-yard. He saw water, a wide sea of it. It was coming from the north. It flowed into the yard, under the house, rising quickly.

The levees compromised, it isn't long before New Orleans is underwater, pictures we have all become accustomed to. As the book's cover picture shows, Zeitoun is the proud owner of a battered canoe that he uses to move quietly about the sunken city; its stealth perfect for picking out the cries for help amongst his neighbours. Egger's description of the devastation captures the shock, the unpreparedness (if that is a word) and contrasts it with the gentle humanity of Zeitoun taking steaks from his freezer to the neighbourhood dogs whose cries he can hear at night. Like a good Samaritan he shuttles people to landing sites where they can be evacuated, carries water to those who need it, and basically does the kind of job that the emergency services, or National Guard, or FEMA, or whoever it is exactly who is supposed to be helping but isn't.

Zeitoun manages to maintain contact with Kathy, a phone line miraculously still working amongst the drowned houses, but when he goes to speak to some men at the door one day Kathy's attempts to call him on that line are met by just a repeated ringing tone. Eggers switches his viewpoint to Kathy as days turn into weeks without contact and she begins to fear the worst: that her husband has become one of the bloated corpses floating through the streets or the victim of the growing lawlessness that the media reports is taking over New Orleans.

The truth is almost more frightening. In another change of viewpoint and pace we find out what had become of Zeitoun as he was rounded up with others and taken to a temporary prison constructed at the coach station.

Looking at it, Zeitoun realized that it was not one long cage, but a series of smaller divided cages. He had seen similar structures before, on the properties of his clients who kept dogs. This cage, like those, was a single fenced enclosure divided into smaller ones. He counted sixteen. It looked like a giant kennel, and yet it looked even more familiar than that.

The similarity with Gauntanamo Bay is obvious and the inmates christen this 'Camp Greyhound'. Suspected of being 'with Al-Qaeda' due simply, it seems, to being Syrian and a Muslim, Zeitoun is held with many others in appalling conditions without charge or access to a lawyer or even a simple phone call. The lack of information, cooperation and basic dignity is terrifying and we see Zeitoun questioning his motives and actions, falling back on his faith for strength and encouragement.

Eggers' prose is plain, pleasingly so for those who weren't so keen on the tricksiness of his own memoir, but two things manage to lift the book and make it something more powerful than just a puffed out piece of journalism. Firstly, Eggers uses water as a thematic link between the present day action and the history of the Zeitoun family. His father nearly drowning at sea during WWII, his elder brother, pride of the family, a champion long-distance swimmer, he and his brother Ahmad both going against their father's wishes and pursuing a life on the seas, it is no wonder that Zeitoun feels the hand of destiny in his decision to remain in the city, or that he seems to be in his element whilst out in that canoe. All of this familial detail helps to make Zeitoun a fully-realised and sympathetic person, so that when his fortunes falter we cannot help but be indignant on his behalf. The book therefore also works as an indictment of the Bush regime and an exposé of their inverted priorities - Several government agencies and huge manpower descended upon the city and yet its residents suffered terribly, some of those deaths surely caused by the lack of organisation in response, and yet a makeshift prison is erected in a couple of days by prisoners shipped into the city, a huge feat of organisation, the materials required ordered at the very beginning of the storm.

As the book progresses Eggers manages to lift his prose to the occasion, nothing too fancy or tricksy but just enough to do justice to the family he says he fell in love with, a family who remained in the city that failed them so badly, their faith strengthened. Their single story serves as just one example of the failures of the Bush regime to America's citizens, and beyond.


Anonymous,  29 March 2010 at 13:44  

great review looking forward to reading this books

Ronak M Soni 30 March 2010 at 15:20  

Sounds interesting. I loved his 'tricksy' memoir.
When has he done fiction though? Pardon me for not going over to wikpedia right now, but my computer can barely handle the firefox.

William Rycroft 30 March 2010 at 18:08  

Ronak - He's writtena novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and a collection of stories, How We Are Hungry. There's also The Wild Things too but the less said about that the better!

I loved his memoir too but I know some found it to be a bit to knowingly clever in places.

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