Dave Eggers is becoming one of my heroes. As traditional journalism is falling apart, he is finding ways to tell important stories in innovative ways. The best example is his wonderful book "What is the What," which he calls a novel, but which conveys more truth about the experience of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the experience of being a refugee in America than any non-fiction account ever could. Zeitoun is his latest venture, and this time, he went with non-fiction, although not in a traditional sense. It is not a workmanlike research paper. It is the story of one family, written largely from their perspective, and it reads like a novel. It has dialogue, written from memory, and is clearly not an exact record. But it reveals a lot of truth about what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The husband, a Muslim immigrant from Syria who lives in New Orleans, gets caught up in the chaos after the storm and is wrongly imprisoned. Now, I kind of missed Katrina because I had a newborn in the NICU when that all went down, so maybe other people already knew this. But I had no idea that New Orleans was basically operating under martial law for several weeks, that people arrested for petty crimes were being thrown into a makeshift outdoor prison similar to Guantanamo and not given the most basic legal protections. That people, some of them innocent, ended up stuck in maximum security prison for months because the government basically lost track of them and gave them no way to contact their families. That a failure of this scale took hundreds, thousands, of people working together to do the wrong thing. It was a stunning breakdown of the American system, and it allowed abuses that most of us believe could not happen in this country. It is a cautionary tale that should not be forgotten.
This book is not as good as "What is the What." Eggers beats you over the head with stuff that you could have easily figured out yourself from reading the story. In the last few pages, he is basically preaching. Also, there was something that felt a bit dishonest to me about the story. He presents the two main characters as people with no faults. By his account, they are perfect people, perfect victims. Nothing is this way in real life, and it makes me wonder what he left out, how much he bowed to the wishes of his subjects. But overall, I believe this book. I believe that some awful things happened after Katrina, and that many of them were not caused by crazed mobs of poor black people (as media accounts would have you believe), but by people in power--cops, attorneys, politicians--and that very little has been done to right those wrongs. I think Eggers deserves credit for putting that story into the world.