This gripping piece of journalism, published last year by McSweeney‘s, a San Francisco publishing house founded by the author, has just been issued in paperback by Vintage Books, and is slated to be the source for an animated film slated to be directed by Jonathan Demme in 2011. At the simplest level, the book tells the story of how an American family underwent and survived the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. But it resonates on a lot of levels: as a deeply personal chronicle of a not-quite natural disaster; as an immigrant saga depicting the limits of the American Dream; and as a sobering, if not harrowing, case study of eroding civil liberties that can’t help but trouble every U.S. citizen.
One reason why the book works as well as it does is the beautifully executed artlessness of its narration. Eggers alternates the point of view in brief passages between the recollections of the Syrian immigrant painting contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun of New Orleans, and his native-born wife Kathy, a convert to Islam. This method, interspersed with flashbacks of the couple’s respective backgrounds, is the organizing strategy for the run-up and experience of the hurricane itself. But it diverges once Zeitoun gets swept up in the improvised criminal justice system of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as we experience Kathy’s panic and despair over her lost husband for a stretch and then witness Zeitoun’s horrific ordeal, amid declining health, in the section that follows. Through it all, Eggers manages to maintain editorial restraint, which makes their ordeal, simply expressed in their own terms, all the more compelling. So does the way we occasionally experience moments of wonder, even beauty, in the stillness that follows the storm and the understated, stunning decency of a man who so savored helping people and animals before he was swept up into the cataclysm that his wife, who fled with their children, unsuccessfully begged him to flee as well.
The depiction of Katrina’s ravages is upsetting enough. But what may be even worse are the privations the Zeitouns suffer once he’s thrown into a jail built by prison inmates in a matter of days — amid the chaos around them — and run by an unaccountable FEMA. (Hell of a job, Brownie.) Here we see the crimes of Guantanamo Prison, which, however deplorable, are nevertheless committed on foreign shores, replicated on U.S. soil. Zeitoun is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, incarcerated without the right to make a phone call, and excoriated for even touching the walls of the cage into which he was thrown. Here is a second train wreck that follows the first, with the same sense of awful inevitability. You can’t bear it, but you can’t stop reading, either. Yes, of course, in this moment of chaos something approaching martial law was necessary. What’s disturbing is how badly planned and executed that martial law was — the sheer senselessness of it, even months and years later. The only really redemptive element in the story is Zeitoun’s faith — not in America, which is broken, probably for good, but for a loving Allah who provides shelter in a man-made storm.
In a way, Zeitoun is revealing less in what it shows about those awful days in August and September of 2005 than as a lightning-illuminated snapshot of the ongoing decay of an egalitarian American democracy. To be sure, the egalitarian strand in American democracy has never been the only or even dominant one — American democracy has co-existed with slavery and plutocracy, for example, for hundreds of years, and at times been defined by precisely such boundaries.
“But the convergence between social, political, and economic equality and democracy, which crested in the middle-third of the twentieth century, has been receding ever since. In offering a story of those British Petroleum chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg– whose company has plunged Louisiana into disaster again — recently called “small people,” Zeitoun documents how viscerally the land of the free is shrinking. And how fast.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (Blackwell-Wiley, 2009). He blogs at American History Now.]
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