When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.
In Zeitoun, what Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It's the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. Eggers…has given us 21st-century Dickensian storytellingwhich is to say, a character-driven potboiler with a point. But here's the real trick: He does it without any writerly triple-lutzes or winks of post modern irony. There are no rants against President Bush, no cheap shots at the authorities who let this city drown. He does it the old-fashioned way: with show-not-tell prose, in the most restrained of voices.