Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (McSweeneys, Hamish Hamilton 2009)
Reading this in the wake of Ronald Wright’s What Is America?, I can’t help but see it as a case study in the dimension of the US that is missing from the land-of-freedom myth. It’s a post-Katrina story: Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a painter, contractor and landlord who had been living and working in New Orleans for 15 years when Katrina struck. His wife and children left before the storm, but he stayed behind to look after their properties, and then stayed on, paddling around in his canoe, helping people to safety, feeding dogs that otherwise would have starved, generally serving God’s purpose (he was and is a devout Muslim). Things go terribly wrong when he encounters the military, and the story takes on the quality of a nightmare.
Dave Eggers displays extraordinary authorial restraint: his narrative is based primarily on the stories as told by Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, and everything is told here from their points of view. There are writerly flourishes in some of the descriptive passages, and it may well be that some of the embedded commentary about George W Bush and FEMA originates with Eggers, but the whole reads as an impressively humble work, the author at the service of his material, at the service of his subjects. All his royalties go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which exists to fund organisations that help people caught up in similar difficulties to the Zeitouns.
The day I finished it, I saw Inglourious Basterds in New York City. The audience laughed cheerfully as the Brad Pitt character did something completely brutal — I couldn’t help but feel that, though he may complicate it with possible alternative readings, Tarantino romanticises, glamorises and eventually in effect endorses exactly the kind of US savagery that laid waste Native American civilisations, the Philippines, Iraq, and led to Guantanamo Bay and Camp Greyhound in New Orleans.