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Book Review of Zeitoun

Author: Dave Eggers
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Nonfiction
Book Type: Paperback
reviewed on + 105 more book reviews

Before I read this book I heard some things about it, was advised to read it critically, not believe everything. Even so, as I read it I became completely absorbed by the story and had difficulty figuring out what I shouldn't believe. The story is about a man who goes by his last name, Zeitoun, who stayed in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina, helping others, and who was detained in temporary cells for reasons that were unclear. The story emphasizes the problems with the post-9/11 security system that was in place at that time. According to Eggers, the incidents that could be cross-checked were; he made a great effort to verify what he could. He also, I learned later, sent copies of the text to the Zeitouns for comment and corrections. Here is where the story may have been edited to portray Zeitoun as a simple, caring, dedicated family man.

But let's start with the story. When Katrina was off-shore and appeared to be threatening New Orleans, Zeitoun encouraged his wife to take their children up north to stay with relatives, while he stayed in New Orleans, helping his customers (he is a painting contractor who also does repair and remodeling work) fortify their homes. Like many in the city, he didn't think Katrina would do any more damage than any other storm he had weathered. When his neighborhood started to flood, however, he found a rowboat and set out, initially to check on his properties. It was during these forays that he came across various persons stranded, as well as some dogs. He helped those that he could, discovering in the process that many of those who were brought into the city to deal with the disaster were security forces, not actually rescuers.

The story of Zeitoun's experiences are alternated with the story of his wife's. It reads like a tale of a loving couple, for the most part. However, the fact that Zeitoun continually found reason to stay in NO while his wife was coping with difficulties in another city suggests that their relationship may not have been all that loving.

The story brought back to me memories of that hurricane and its aftermath. The whole of this country seemed to be glued to television as report after report showed how badly the disaster was handled at a federal level, including the use of the military to "keep peace". Zeitoun's story jibes well with what I know of that time. How he actually behaved during this time is, of course, not fully known.

What has come out since the publication of this book is that Zeitoun has been charged with attempting to murder his wife, and his wife has admitted that their troubles started long before Katrina. None of this invalidates the story here, except for what Zeitoun and his wife may have thought or said. And, of course, the impression that he is a good man might be questionable.

Worth reading anyway, I think. It's quick and easy to read, written in a simple, unadorned reportorial style. A library of Katrina books is developing, and this one certainly belongs there.