Show not tell
Dave Egger’s 1999 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius chronicled his life while taking care of his younger brother Christopher "Toph" Eggers following the cancer-related deaths of his parents. Eggers has since gone far beyond the personal narrative and into the chaotic world outside himself. In his 2006 book What Is The What (reviewed here by Lisa), Eggers tells the painful true-life account of a Sudanese war refugee who was a member of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He then went on to use the book's profits to organize a human rights organization named after the book’s main character. Now, in his most recent book, Zeitoun, Eggers tells the story of Hurricane Katrina through the intimate lens of the Zeitoun family who are long time residents. And as with his last book, all proceeds from the book go the Zeitoun Foundation, a human rights organization that aids in the rebuilding of New Orleans. In Zeitoun, Eggers introduces Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a middle-aged Syrian-American and the owner of a successful painting and contracting firm in New Orleans. His wife and business partner, Kathy, comes from a Southern Baptist family who later coverted to Islam after her first failed marriage. The Zeitouns have four children and live in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. The story starts out two days before the storm arrives when the city is full of mounting tensions and residents are madly fleeing their homes. Kathy decides to leave with the children and go to Baton Rouge and later Phoenix while Zeitoun, as usual, decides to stay in the city to watch over their own home and other properties. After a relatively standard post-storm Day 1, by Day 2 it is ominously clear to Zeitoun that the city’s levees have failed and the city is completely overrun with water. After saving what he could of his own family’s valuables, Zeitoun then takes to his 16-foot aluminum canoe and paddles around New Orleans witnessing the spectacle and saving elderly and dehydrated residents trapped in rotting, destroyed houses. Filled with an increasing sense of purpose, Zeitoun’s determination to save lives and help those less fortunate becomes more intense as the waters become more polluted and as the violence and chaos of the city deepens. The book takes a turn when six armed officers show up at one of Zeitoun’s properties and take he and two others into custody for unclear reasons except possibly accused armed robbery. This then proceeds into a harrowing account of the government mistaking Zeitoun for a terrorist and subjecting him to a series of humiliations including full body searches, forced entrapment in a wire cage at makeshift Camp Greyhound, and finally being transferred to a real prison outside of New Orleans. And all the while, he is kept from making a call to his wife. In telling this true account, Eggers' style (much like in What Is The What) is amazingly simple and unadorned. There are no political soapboxes or rants whatsoever, just strictly a show-not-tell style of narrative that almost makes the reader believe he was simply transcribing word for word what the Zeitouns told him about their nightmarish experiences post- Hurricane Katrina. The results are poignant and disturbing and unabashedly clear.