Reading Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun will make you outraged…in a good way.
The last novel that left me so outraged was Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, which details the injustices done to an innocent Jewish man by anti-Semitic Russians. Zeitoun also concerns an innocent man, in this case a Muslim named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who experiences how disgusting and savage the American justice system can become. Eggers’ novel actually had a bigger impact on me than Malumud’s, most likely because it takes place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I remember that period. I was in high school when it happened – certainly old enough to know how staggeringly terrible the whole situation was for those unfortunate enough to be there.
But some were more fortunate than others, because Zeitoun stayed behind, in part to help strangers any way he could. And for that, he’s brutalized, humiliated, and nearly “disappeared” (more on that in a minute) by good ole’ American police officers and soldiers.
This is far more than just a treatise exposing the uglier sides of our justice system. Like all of Eggers’ novels, it is well-paced, full of memorable characters, and imbued with a sense of decency reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. We learn about Zeitoun and his wife’s past and family and the unique challenges both face living in a post-9/11 America. The book can be roughly split into three parts – first, we get to know the Zeitouns and see the ominous approach of Hurricane Katrina, second, we see Zeitoun work to help anyone he can amidst the escalating chaos while his wife tries to care for their four children alone, and third, we helplessly watch Zeitoun plunge into an abyss he barely escapes, partly due to the efforts of his wife, who spends this period mourning her presumed dead husband and then frantically trying to rescue him.
None of this information will spoil the book for you. There are plenty of surprises I haven’t mentioned and, in any case, great books are great for the way they are told, not for what they are saying. And with Zeitoun, the telling is heart-breaking.
I don’t say that lightly. It truly is an unsettling story because we see how fragile our civilized society is, how quickly people in authority become vicious sadists and how hard it is to hang onto any semblance of humanity when the easy thing to do is just go along with the chaos all around. The most terrifying part of Zeitoun’s journey is when it becomes clear how he could have been swallowed up by the justice system forever, imprisoned for decades, if not his entire life, without ever committing a crime, never being given a lawyer, and never even getting to make a single phone call. The insidious prejudice of a handful of people (or scum, as I like to call them) nearly destroys a man. And I can’t help wonder, for every one Zeitoun who escaped, how many countless others are wasting away in a cell, right now, as you read this, no more guilty than he was?
This is a book that shows some of the worst impulses of humanity. But Eggers thankfully shows the best of humanity as well, in Zeitoun’s family, his family, community, and even in strangers. We are left outraged but hopeful in the knowledge that the better aspects of our nature can survive and triumph.
Zeitoun is not only a great novel, but a necessary one in our strange, strange times.
So go read it. Now.