"We've lost a city," I remember a coworker saying.
Hurricane Katrina began as any other hurricane, its ominous potential barely registering as a low-level drone at the back of the collective American consciousness. By the time the news had broken about how truly fucked a major American city had become, it was too late—all we could do, 2,600 miles away, was listen to Oprah talk about the Astrodome, read Michael Brown's dumbshit emails, watch footage of people on rooftops and overpasses, and talk, idly and numbly, of losing a city.
I can't imagine that even now, four years later, New Orleans is anything approaching ideal—or even anything approaching what it once was. It's hard to know: As if it were a deep, unexpected wound that was nonetheless kind enough to promptly heal, America—or at least, the America beyond the South—doesn't talk much about Katrina anymore.
Which is partially why Dave Eggers' latest, Zeitoun, is so profoundly affecting. The true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American with four children, a wife, Kathy, and a successful business, Zeitoun chronicles Abdulrahman's then-reasonable decision to stay put in New Orleans, Kathy's attempts to evacuate with the kids, and Zeitoun's fortunes in the midst of catastrophe. Zeitoun's post-storm exploits are spurred, in the beginning, by a strange sort of boredom: "When he had eaten, he felt restless, trapped," Eggers writes. "The water was too deep to wade into, its contents too suspect to swim through. But there was the canoe. He saw it, floating above the yard, tethered to the house. Amid the devastation of the city, standing on the roof of his drowned home, Zeitoun felt something like inspiration. He imagined floating, alone, though the streets of his city. In a way, this was a new world, uncharted. He could be an explorer. He could see things first."
See things first he does, but once he's past the eerie placidity of his newly submerged suburb, Zeitoun also sees—and is subjected to—things that inspire awe, confusion, and terror. "The flood, and now the fire: It was difficult not to think of passages in the Qur'an that recounted the flood of Noah, the evidence of God's wrath," Zeitoun thinks, not long after he first starts paddling his canoe around his neighborhood, and later, he is forced to a brutal realization: "Every piece of machinery—the police, the military, the prisons—that was meant to protect people like him was devouring anyone who got close. He had long believed that the police acted in the best interests of the citizens they served. That the military was accountable, reasonable, and was kept in check by concentric circles of regulations, laws, common sense, common decency. But now those hopes could be put to rest."
Zeitoun is Eggers' first book of straight-up nonfiction—unlike his partially fictionalized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, What Is the What, and his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun is entirely a work of journalism, a straightforward, deeply researched "account of one family's experiences before and after the storm." Here Eggers simply reports, bringing his sometimes lyrical, always earnest voice to the events at hand—with an intense and moving clarity, the focus is always on Zeitoun, a man whose experience in New Orleans veers from routine to surreal to excruciating. If Katrina was an unexpected wound that seemed, for most of us, to heal too quickly, Zeitoun is the sort of thing that forces our eyes downward, to the ugly scar.