Review: ‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers

Over the course of the 300-plus pages of Dave Eggers’ journalistic narrative Zeitoun, the leading lad of one of my favorite self-indulgent, albeit delightful, memoirs became more than the guy who was almost on “The Real World: San Francisco.” Mind blown. Imagine having this ability to write, a mix of ambition plus passion, and an established name as a check to float while changing the entire world.

Whoa, Dave Eggers. Talk about using your powers for good.

Zeitoun is an account of the effects of Hurricane Katrina from the voices of the Zeitoun family: Abdulrahman and Kathy. The former, a native of Syria, the latter a Muslim convert he met in Louisiana and married. He is a successful contractor; She mans the phones and does the books. As the infamous hurricane is bearing down on their city, Kathy takes the kids and heads to Baton Rouge. Abdulrahman stays behind to watch the house and their rental properties. And when the levees break, first he uses a triage system to save their most-necessary possessions. Then he travels New Orleans by aluminum canoe plucking the elderly from second-floor windows and feeding the dogs that were abandoned when the owners fled.

In his travels he observes rowdy looters and finds a few friends who also stuck around through the storm. He finds an old woman, her dress billowing in the water, who is floating near the ceiling of her house, clinging to a bookcase. He starts to feel pretty good about being in this place and helping these people. While making his daily phone call to Kathy at one of his rental properties, some officials bust in on the house and arrest Abdulrahman and his three friends. They are accused of being terrorists and of stealing, even though they are in a home he owns. They are strip-searched and thrown into first a makeshift prison at the Greyhound station, then a maximum security prison. Abdulrahman isn’t given a phone call or any way to let Kathy know what has happened. No lawyers. No treatment for illness or injury, and no respect for his religion that doesn’t allow for pork.

This super real story that happened half a country away reads like a science fiction true crime nightmare of epic government incompetence. Not to mention it is an incredible feat of writing.

This is exactly what made me dig Susan Orlean in the early 2000s-to present day and Joan Didion more recently. I like, and envy, a writer who can become embedded enough to tell the subject’s story including the big details, personality ticks, and the color of the walls. The billowing dress, for instance. The smell of dead animals. The water filling the living room and Abdulrahman emptying the family fish tank into it.

And Eggers paints the main character as this mix of 100 percent loyal and hardworking, but also a stubborn man in a way that is heroic for the people he helped, but frustrating for his family — who just wanted him with them. Eggers also doubles back to give a voice to the people involved with arresting Zeitoun and his friends — which I didn’t expect, but makes everything before it even more well done.

I’m glossing over the fact that this is a stunning book that is impossible to talk about without getting completely frothed. And I’d imagine some people didn’t dare open it for fear of self-induced rage fueled brain explosions. But that just shows Eggers’ awesomeness. Instead of using his powers for cute turns of phrase and kitchy plots, he dropped a camera into the mud and gave a very moving account of something that most of us just saw on TV. Damn he’s good.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on November 10, 2010.

Review: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for the first time in 1999, and it went a little something like this: Pop rocks. Coke. Shake. Brain.

Dave Eggers’ memoir-with-benefits was this thing that totally changed my understanding of what a good book could be. So influenced was I, that it necessitated instigating a Top 5 Favorite Books list, where just having A Favorite Book, or Two Books Tied for Favorite Book, would no longer do. If I recall correctly, I ushered in Y2K with this as my answer to a question no one would ever ask me: 1. The Sun Also Rises (Hem); 2. The Great Gatsby (Fitzy); 3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers); 4. The Awakening (Chopin); and 5. The Edible Woman (Atwood).

In the past decade, I’ve never really monkeyed with that list. I could probably still defend my picks in front of a jury of my peers, although I can’t say I’d make the same list right now. But I wouldn’t make a list right now because I’ve probably read like 600-plus books since I was 24, and to sort them would be akin to having a freshly sharpened axe driven into my skull by the Strongest Human Being in All of the Land.

Every other book on that list had been subject to a re-read, and in some cases re-(to the nth power)read. But I dared not touch the Eggers again. Until now. My boyfriend listened to it recently, was chuckling over some Eggers family hilarity, then picked me up a copy from the library.

I expected this to be spiritual. Like eight hours alone in the attic of your youth, flipping pages of a yearbook and trying on the old letter jacket. If the song “Mambo No. 5″ still smells like August on a highway cutting through Durango, Colorado to me, imagine the power of the words from one of my favorite books in conjuring up some residual 20-something bullshit.

Yeah. Nada.

The reading public’s introduction to the future Mr. McSweeney’s was this: The story about how Eggers parents both died of cancer within a few months of each other when he was in his early 20s, leaving behind an elementary school-aged blank slate for Eggers, etc. to raise. Dave and young Toph Eggers make a dynamic duo, technically a father-ish kinda-son relationship, that leans more big brother buddy and little dude.

Eggers runs a tight ship: No one swears around Toph. But they also consider the slide-ability of the hard-wood floors when rating an apartment. There is wrestling. There is Frisbee. There are massive freak outs when Toph has his first non-Eggers babysitter, or isn’t at the right door when Dave picks him up after a bar mitzvah. There are tender hair tousles, and cute insults. And the whole thing makes you wish that you had a supercool older brother who had taken you into his tutelage and taught you how to be hilarious. Or that you had your own blank slate to teach the trick involving the 360 degree spin before catching the disc.

In the meantime, it’s about being a 20-something in the 1990s and having friends, ideas, dreams, world domination fantasies, and connections to Adam Rich of “Eight is Enough.” Not to mention the fun cult ref drops like Vince Vaughn (Eggers went to high school with him), Puck and Judd from “The Real World: San Francisco” (Eggers was a finalist for a part as one of the seven strangers who would learn what it’s like when people stop being polite … and start being real).

Reading this book 10 years later is like reading one of those letters you write to yourself when you are a senior in high school. “Dear Christa … By now you have probably written a trilogy of bestsellers that not only have a strong mainstream presence, but are also critically acclaimed by book snobs everywhere.”

Except this is Eggers’ measuring stick. “By now you will do exactly what you wanted to do … create a website that appeals to literary sorts, publish a handful of novels, and have a sort of celebrity that is uncommon to people who work with words.” And now Toph is in his mid-20s, and highly Google-able for his own projects. Instead of a book about big plans, it is his to-do list, and he has done a remarkable job of emptying it.

It’s like his journal of non-embarrassing things. Which is a far better thing than if this book had sent me sailing back to 1999, which would have been a headache teeming with embarrassing things.

This review originally ran on Minnesota Reads on October 21, 2010.