Paddling in the shallows

Dave Eggers, one of the most powerful figures in current American writing, has tackled Hurricane Katrina. But he fails to get under the skin of New Orleans
February 24, 2010
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

There is a scene in the recent film Where the Wild Things Are in which we are given a vision of a city, flooded, with two figures floating through it in a canoe. One of the figures declares ruefully: “It was going to be a place where only the things you wanted to have happened would happen.” The screenplay was written by Dave Eggers, and the imagery is borrowed from his new book, Zeitoun, an (allegedly factual) account of a real Muslim couple in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

We watch Where the Wild Things Are in order to relish its charming horrors. Zeitoun, however, is a very different exercise: a tale of horror, but also of uplift, aimed squarely at leaving us wiser and more enlightened. In interviews, Eggers has described the people whose story he tells—Abdulrahman Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, and their children—as “the ultimate, all-American family,” and has said he intends nothing less than the “de-exoticisation of Islam.”

Zeitoun is from Syria. His wife is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a convert from southern Baptism. During Katrina she and the children evacuated. He remained behind in Uptown, a prosperous neighbourhood on higher ground. He met up with pals, jaunted around in his canoe, and was generally helpful. He was arrested on suspicion of looting, and imprisoned for several weeks. They all live happily ever after.

For the last six years I’ve been spending part of the year in New Orleans, where I’ve volunteered to teach creative writing to gifted high school students. When the hurricane struck, in August 2005, I was in the Nevada desert, camping with friends from New Orleans who discovered they had no home to go back to. I returned to the city in January, five months after Katrina. It was still largely ruined. I took the bus in from the airport, where I sat among a group who had just been released from jail. All were black and poor; all had been arrested for petty crime, mostly looting, during Katrina.

The New Orleans novelist Poppy Z Brite recently tweeted, “I think art about New Orleans, especially post-K, should be made by New Orleanians.” It is extraordinarily difficult for an outsider to write fiction or memoir set in New Orleans; I know because I’ve tried. New Orleanians are divided and linked by class, race, ancestry, geography, and kinship. They speak with more dialectal variation than anywhere else in America. It is a Caribbean city tacked onto the US; its government and its police have a less than immaculate reputation.

Since his autobiographical 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers has been a prolific and hugely successful producer of fiction and non-fiction, often mixing both to kaleidoscopic effect. It’s fair enough for him to write a “true” fairytale about an all-American couple that takes place in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But it’s inadequate to portray New Orleans as an all-American city.

In the entire book, nobody speaks a word of local dialect, or so much as eats a bite of local food. And, glaringly, there is the almost total absence of African-Americans. Zeitoun owns a construction company and has hired mostly Latinos (who behave “like children,” he asserts).

In fact, there is an ongoing tension between Latino and African-American construction workers. I met a black locksmith who had changed the locks on a house illegally inhabited by Mexican workers and their families, preventing them from entering or retrieving their belongings. He justified this: “It ain’t no place to be bringin up chirrun anyhow.”

Eggers’s intent is to attack the Bush administration: to assert that the failures during and after Katrina could have happened anywhere in America. But could they? No doubt the real Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun are more three-dimensional than Eggers presents them. There are hints she had been bulimic; she had two years of wildness and a failed marriage before converting and marrying him, and her mental problems resurfaced later. He is portrayed as a Boy’s Own hero, phlegmatic to the core. Yet he seems happiest away from his family, and when accused of being gay he becomes vituperative.

We are assured they are devout. To remind us of this, Kathy is repeatedly seen adjusting her hijab, while Zeitoun’s stream of consciousness is larded with user-friendly quotes from the Koran. Yet they have no problem with eating non-halal cheeseburgers at Burger King. We are given no convincing explanation of why Zeitoun remained behind. Eggers imagines a terse telephone conversation: “‘The water’s coming,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe it.’ He heard her stifle a sob. ‘I better go,’ he said. He hung up and went to work.”

Episodes of Kathy’s life in exile alternate with Zeitoun’s adventures. Eggers, who is not afraid of clichés, writes: “The water was whispering through the cracks in the back fence… [He was] momentarily struck by the beauty of the sight.” Later, “He paddled down Dart Street, the water flat and clear. And strangely, almost immediately, Zeitoun felt at peace. The damage to the neighborhood was extraordinary, but there was an odd calm in his heart.”

The Katrina survivors I spoke to had no calm in their heart, odd or otherwise. In addition to fear for themselves and their loved ones, they had to put up with torrid heat, humidity, a plague of mosquitoes, and the sheer stink of it all. And there was the barking of trapped dogs, sometimes for days, until the poor creatures died.

Zeitoun, after a couple of days, gets round to feeding a nearby dog with meat from his freezer. This remarkable freezer, despite the lack of electricity, continues to supply frozen meat for five days. As for Kathy, she stands in front of a mirror and fiddles with her hijab. Intermittently Zeitoun examines his photograph album, enabling flashbacks to his youth. He grew up by the Mediterranean. His elder brother, Mohammed, had been a champion ocean swimmer, and had died young. “That he was from a country not well known for its coast made his achievements all the more remarkable,” Eggers states bathetically.

The plot meanders on, never quite touching anything I recognised as lived experience. Zeitoun meets up with an employee. “A time like this could change a man,” we’re told, “and [Zeitoun] was happy to see it happening here and now to Todd: a good man made better.” The two of them paddle about. Zeitoun sees just one store being looted by (racially non-specified) youths, one of whom has a gun and “squares his shoulders” at Zeitoun. He gives a lift to a prostitute on her way to work (Zeitoun behaves with the utmost propriety). And he sees one drowned body. Thus the requisite elements are ticked off.

Out of the blue he is arrested and taken to the Greyhound bus station, which is converted into a lock-up. And so to prison. He is not allowed to phone his wife, or speak to a lawyer, or get medical attention. When a prisoner disobeys the rules he is held down and doused with pepper spray.

Disgraceful though this is, it’s not unheard of by New Orleans standards. I recently spoke to a man arrested for cannabis possession, who was held in a cell containing 40 prisoners and 20 beds. He was vomiting blood into the one toilet bowl. He asked to see a doctor; the guard told him to put his hands into the toilet and bring out the blood as proof.

Yet the justice system can be flexible. I tried to use the public library, after Katrina. It had been taken over by the federal government as an assistance information centre. I ran into an acquaintance, a bartender, who suggested we go for a drink. It was 10am. An hour later I’d had one beer and she’d had several, and we returned to the library. A officer from homeland security threatened to arrest her for drunkenness. She calmed him down by stroking his head and addressing him as “baby.” Only in New Orleans.

Eventually, our hero is released. And Eggers concludes: “It was a test, Zeitoun thinks… But every person is stronger now… This has been the pattern of his life: ludicrous dreams followed by hours and days and years of work and then reality surpassing his wildest hopes and expectations.” The book reads like a film treatment, and indeed an animated film of it will be out next year. If heartwarming stories set in disaster zones are your thing, best to wait for that. For a more plausible fictionalised portrayal of life during Katrina, see AD: New Orleans

After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld. You can also find a compelling account of what went on in New Orleans’s prisons at the website of the American Civil Liberties Union. And if you want to help ordinary New Orleanians tell their own stories, consider donating to the Neighborhood Story Project, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts or Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners.