By Dave Eggers
Reviewed by Alan Green
When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans most people managed to evacuate before the winds roared in and the floodwaters began to rise. Those who were still trapped in the city faced a nightmarish struggle to survive. This is the true story of a man who decided to stay behind when everyone else was desperate to get out.
With hindsight Abdulrahman Zeitoun should have evacuated with his family but like everyone else in New Orleans he accepted the occasional hurricane threat as part of life. By the time it became clear that this time was different it was too late.
At that point most people would have holed up and waited to be rescued. Abdulrahman dug out on old canoe and set out across the drowned city to see if there was anything he could do to help. Paddling across a post-apocalyptic landscape he slowly uncovers a new world. He rescues desperate people from their collapsing homes, feeds starving pets, liberates goldfish, faces down armed gangs and generally proves that desperate situations do sometimes create heroes.
Zeitoun is a perfect example of a true life story that is weirder, more inspiring and darker than any fiction. There’s a shocking twist about two thirds of the way in that would seem farfetched if this was a novel.
Without the final section this would be an uplifting story of someone struggling to help others in a terrible situation. The later chapters give this book a much more sinister edge. The authorities’ desperate attempts to regain control manage to make the city even more dangerous. An already terrible situation is complicated by the paranoia flowing from the war on terror.
Dave Eggers first encountered Abdulrahman’s story in Voices from the Storm, a collection of eyewitness accounts of the hurricane and its aftermath. Incidentally that earlier book is also very good and available in the college library. Eggers decided that this was a story that needed to be told in more detail. He approached the family and convinced them to share their experiences with him.
The resulting book sometimes reads like an adventure story but the knowledge that all this happened to real people does give it extra power. I’m sure you have read other books where the hero is struggling to do the right thing after society has collapsed around them. Read Zeitoun if you want to know what it was really like to live through an apocalypse.