This is a book in two halves. There is the half that I can summarise here, and the half that is so shocking that almost nothing can be said without spoiling it. The first half is shocking too, but it's a story we already know – about the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans in August 2005, and then during the chaotic aftermath. In the early pages, when the storm warnings come and residents shrug them off as nothing to worry about, the author is aware that – unlike his subjects – we all know just how serious it's going to be.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a real-life 47-year-old Syrian-American; a former sailor, hard-working and devout, married to Kathy, a Louisiana girl now converted to Islam, with whom he has four children. At the beginning of Eggers' book, Zeitoun and Kathy run a painting and construction business together; people in the neighbourhood know and respect them, and they are happy. And we know that something bad, something very bad, is about to happen to them. Yet when it does, it's perhaps not as grim as we expected.
Yes, the levees are breached and the city floods, and the family is split when Kathy and the kids evacuate and Zeitoun insists on staying behind to look after their properties. But the ravaged city where he remains is curiously almost idyllic – beautifully quiet, submerged under water that is clean, translucent, "almost green". Zeitoun retrieves an old canoe he had in the garage, and begins to explore the neighbourhood in it, and make himself useful.
Though his story drifts occasionally into a minor key (when the first signs of looting appear, and the water no longer looks so clean and beautiful), it's largely a story of hope. As he paddles, Zeitoun finds abandoned dogs and feeds them; he rescues an old lady trapped in her house, and on one curious occasion discovers himself giving a prostitute a ride to work. He calls an anxious Kathy daily at noon, to reassure her that all's well, that he's doing God's work; doing important things to make his family proud. And then, well, then we get into that second half.
There's nothing tricksy, nothing sly about the telling of this story. Eggers looks at it square on and right in the eye. There is no sense of manipulation or artifice. That's not to say, however, that Zeitoun isn't filled with a novelist's touches – the chosen detail, the impeccably controlled pace and tone, and little dissonant grace-notes. But while it feels like a masterful construction, we never forget that this story is not something imagined by a fiction-writer, but something experienced by two particular people at a real place and time, not so long ago.
Perhaps Eggers' greatest achievement is his balancing of the day-by-day account of the Zeitouns as something detailed and particular, something rather intimate and personal, with his use of them to express something greater, to tell the bigger story. The family isn't made to be typical or to represent anything, it doesn't stand in for a big systemic problem (the Katrina story has been told that way before – one poor black family left to suffer, abandoned by its government...), but the family's particular experiences reveal an ugly seam in American society and the structures of establishment power. Zeitoun is a proud man, proud of his adopted country, who has never let small daily troubles (the casual racism he and Kathy keep stumbling across) dispel his pride or his idealisation of the great place he has settled in after his years of wandering. With the events that follow Katrina, however, his love for the Land of the Free is tested.
Zeitoun is a story of frustrating incompetence and infuriating abuses of power, where the good intentions and optimism of people such as Zeitoun are measured alongside the opportunism of others. It's impossible not to sympathise with these people who are sharing their stories with us, not to be outraged and disappointed on their behalf. Eggers never rants at injustice and his prose remains clear and sharp-focused. But while there's no boiling anger in the telling of it, you'll find plenty evoked in the reading.