Back in 2000, when A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius turned Dave Eggers into a literary rock star, the knock on him was that he was too arch, too mesmerized by his own navel. But since then, Eggers has grappled with the world beyond his belly button more than just about any author we can think of. Almost comically so, given the sheer number of nonprofit groups he’s helped create and finance (which benefit everything from Darfur to inner-city teens). He's become the Mother Teresa of publishing.
In his last book, 2006's What Is the What, Eggers relayed the harrowing true-life account of a Sudanese war refugee. It was an important story told simply and powerfully, and the profits it generated bankrolled a human rights organization named for its main character. Now Eggers has brought that same compassion to his latest book, Zeitoun, which kicks off on Aug. 26, 2005 back when Hurricane Katrina was a harmless blip on some meteorologist's radar and millions of lives were about to change overnight.
One of them belongs to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant who lives and works as a contractor in New Orleans. As the storm nears, Zeitoun's wife and kids evacuate, but he stubbornly stays behind. Then the levees break and the city is flooded like something out of the Book of Revelation. Zeitoun paddles a canoe through the abandoned streets, helping trapped neighbors and starving dogs. ''I feel like I'm supposed to be here,'' Zeitoun tells his worried wife over the phone. ''It's God's will.'' But then fate intervenes, horrifically.
Eggers' sympathy for Zeitoun is as plain and real as his style in telling the man's story. He doesn't try to dazzle with heartbreaking pirouettes of staggering prose; he simply lets the surreal and tragic facts speak for themselves. And what they say about one man and the city he loves and calls home is unshakably poignant but not without hope, since the proceeds from Eggers' book are earmarked for the Zeitoun Foundation, which will help the victims of Katrina. A–