Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Honestly, I didn't expect this from Dave Eggers, though I should have. I've read several issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and I'm a regular visitor to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, so I'm familiar with the jocularity, bathos, and mock-heroic diction of same. Plus just this spring I taught Eggers' first book, the stirringly titled Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I seem NOT to have commented upon here in March, what with all the marking), so put those together, and they're collectively the source of whatever expectations I came in with.

But what I should have remembered, instead, were the fairly humble, heartfelt, and reasonable yet passionate videos I've recently seen of him discussing his volunteer work, such as at the 2008 TED Talks, where he received a significant grant to make the world a better place. That's what seems genuinely to drive him, this desire to make the world a better place, and it's this which should have tipped me to expect the form in which Zeitoun appeared.

The book's earnest; it's straightforward; it skews toward reportage. There's anger, sure, and this is after all a portrait of a family and a couple and two people who go through something very painful, but Eggers does a really great job of staying out of his own way. Overall, it's a very successful portrait of a family that should by all rights be ordinary, but is treated as extraordinary - and turns out to deserve to be treated that way, though not quite in the way that it happens.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced "Zaytoon," Eggers helpfully explains early on) is a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans running a very successful house-painting business, when the city's brushed gently by a little rain-shower called Katrina. Zeitoun's wife Kathy (an American convert to Islam) leaves the city with their girls, and Zeitoun stays to look after the jobsites and assorted properties, several of which they own. One thing leads to another, and Zeitoun experiences the best and the worst of what happened in New Orleans while it was underwater. The family, afterward, both recovers - somewhat - and suffers.

I'm not giving away any of the plot details here, but this book's both uplifting and heartbreaking, maddening and encouraging. Give it to people who might be interested in how people respond to externally imposed crises, either natural disasters or family trauma. Give it to people whose character means they need a personal view of someone unlike them, either brown of skin or religiously other. Give it to people comfortable with America's fraught political and racial landscape.

And give it to anyone who might have voted for Stephen Harper, because Zeitoun illuminates fully half a dozen planks in the execrable Conservative platform, and this is absolutely NOT the kind of country I want to live in. (Yes, I am cranky about yesterday's election. No, my mood isn't going to be improving any time soon.)

As editor, satirist, and all-around man-about-town H.L. Mencken memorably put it in 1919, in relation to poetry, of all things, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." Zeitoun's not about that. But the sentiment's in the air, throughout the book and throughout its readership, and across Canada after yesterday's Conservative election victory and across the United States after the death of Osama bin Laden, and it all makes me more than a little anxious.

One wonders what the world's coming to: or one would simply wonder, if one wasn't feeling rather more committed today to not just waiting to see what the world comes to.


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