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The Books and the City

Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

By Dan Baum
Spiegel & Grau, 2009

Zeitoun

By Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s Books, 2009

For readers, what’s exhilarating about great crimes and tragedies in the American South is how quickly, how necessarily, they are translated into literature.

The most recent maelstrom eliciting literary remembrance is Hurricane Katrina, late-August/early-September 2005. But this time it’s not fiction that rushes in. We’re too wired to wait for fiction. It’s nonfiction, and the coverage is personal—memoir, reportage, biography. Fiction will come. But for now the urgency of the witness/participant story is driving the boat. The reason is, Katrina played so well on TV. The writer bounces off that reality, feels the charged immediacy of those pictures of families waving at helicopters from rooftops. After watching Anderson Cooper on CNN tell the self-congratulatory governor of Louisiana that the dead body he’s seen lying on the street for forty-eight hours is being eaten by rats, and that he is sick of politicians’ promises to help, it’s an up-bayou slog for an author to translate the catastrophe into print. The way in is reportage, which writers use to understand the live nature of tragedy in our time and what that means to its reconstitution in a current book.

Most filmmakers get this liveness. Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) is a masterful documentary. What the cinematographer did—showing up in the immediate wake of the storm—was to let New Orleanians, white and black, rage at fate and officialdom. Much like Cooper’s scolding interviews, Lee lets the storm blow through again, lingering on the oily water, survivors turning their noses from dead animals, vice-president Cheney’s self-aggrandizing news conference (“Go fuck yourself, Dick Cheney”), the crushing horror of people confronting their homes, now matchstick piles.

It’s postmodern, the coverage of catastrophe, pre-mediated by television and film; its legacy is inseparable from that perspective. What’s an author to do? Something about this comedown from video jarring to leveling print may be behind the unevenness of Nine Lives, by the former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum. His book is culled from “Talk of the Town” and feature pieces in that magazine, which he reported on in the storm’s aftermath for some three years. Baum takes a new tack into the nightmare. He stretches the voyage back forty-plus years. We also jump, island-to-island, from one story to another. It’s tough to follow Baum—a bit like recalling who’s who at a wedding—as one or two children become adults, as one or two adults becoming seniors, and as one memorable character, John Guidos becomes JoAnn via a sex change.

The nine are presented specimen-like, pinned under glass for close viewing. There’s John/JoAnn Guidos; Wilbert Rawlins Jr, the high school bandleader who mentors his students; Anthony Wells, the savvy and street-eloquent New Orleans gadabout; Timothy Bruneau, the cop who loves policing and, for his aggressive efforts, is shot in the head and partially disabled; Ronald W. Lewis, the itinerant Lower Ninth Ward laborer (the resourceless Lower Ninth was completely wiped out); Joyce Montana, one of the great suit makers of Mardi Gras, “was beautiful precisely because it was so frivolous”) who works on her husband Tootie’s costume all year; Belinda Carr, a woman whose talent and dreams of leaving the Lower Ninth are stifled by abusive husbands and serial pregnancies; Billy Grace, a working-class white who aspires to Uptown society, becomes a lawyer and millionaire, and eventually is invited to join the famous Rex krewe, an organization that builds floats and hosts parties for Mardi Gras; and Frank Minyard, the city’s premier gynecologist and methadone activist who is elected coroner and who advocates for the 1800 Katrina dead who, he says, died not by drowning but from the stress of abandonment.

These nine disparate lives, given to us in pearled descriptions or flashbulb vignettes, are fascinating. Here’s an example of how Baum ladles in the local ingredients, peppering the stew with Wilbert Rawlins Jr’s emerging sensibility as a ten-year-old in 1980:

Ma and Da both left the house at five o-clock every morning. Miss Camille would pick up the boys in her big station wagon and carry them across the canal to their grandmother’s house on Deslonde Street. The air those mornings was warm, wet, and fragrant: a hedge of star jasmine in the churchyard across Burgundy, coffee roasting on Congress Street, fish coming into the Spain Street wharf, the big old sweet olive hanging over the corner of Louisa. But what lit Wil up inside was music—a ship on the river sounding its horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine. The music was all around and inside him.

Much of the book crackles like this—reportorially exact, sensually alive. A crowd of onlookers shout “Ohhhh!” at Tootie’s Mardi Gras suit when he appears each spring:

Tootie stood at the top of the stairs holding out his arms, radiant in turquoise feathers. Sequins flashed from the cuffs of his shirt. Hillocks of intricate beadwork protruded from the apron covering his chest and belly. Joyce had concentrated hard all year, helping to bead those pieces. To see Tootie finally wearing it, out in the early sunshine, made her heart full.

But despite the exquisite rendering—Baum interviewed his subjects and dozens of their friends over a two-year period—they still feel emotionally distant, more typed than actual. One reason is there’s too many of them; another is, there’s too much time. How much more gripping the stories of just three or four, tied to a briefer time before and after Katrina, might have been.

As is, only with Rawlins and Carr (whose marriage is disenthralled by the flood) does the inner struggle of dream and defeat give up its tightly guarded secrets. Because the pair interact. Much of the rest of Baum’s touch-and-go prose regales his subjects with that over-shown and under-told style of the disinterested reporter.

At first, I accepted these faces in a crowd, growing distinct, as part of Baum’s snapshot presentation. This is not TV but biographical history. Indeed, Baum lays out a vital and varied history of place through its inhabitants’ eyes. But all too soon I dizzied from the shifting portraits. I never understood why he chose these nine and their forty years. Did he know such an on-and-off style would disorient us? Suspending judgment, I hoped a mighty conjoining was afoot: for the nine, the character-making of forty years would be tested by the flood. Perhaps they would meet—cop working with coroner and the book’s Lower Ninth residents, rescuing and losing loved ones as the waters rose.

None of that came together. Despite the long time frame, only one earlier storm and a few street-corner drug thugs were foreshadowed. When Katrina blew through, its aftermath was less than a third of the book. Which made me think this is not a Katrina book. But why push toward the storm and its aftermath? Why “death and life”? What death? None of the nine or their loved ones die. If anything, Katrina enforced a disconnectedness that was already present—in book and city. Their lives were disparate, which is too simple to be Baum’s intent.

It is true that his writing reminds us that our racial, political, and economic divisions are America; that the states are the lost children of an unconcerned federal bureaucracy; that without clout on the national level any outpost, a fort on the frontier, will collapse under siege. There is no cavalry riding to the rescue. But we already knew that: TV’s revelation went way beyond “heck-of-a-job” Brownie; we got the suffering.

For my money, Baum’s ragged narrative reinforced the Big Obvious in the Big Easy. His Dorothea Lange-style approach lets the subjects “speak” their lives and no more. They come across as victims (mostly white or black Southern urban poor) not as full individuals. I often wondered what unifying characteristic New Orleanians had lost or were trying to preserve here. Only Anthony Wells seemed to realize it. Wells’s unedited words, presented in italics, say something important about what he had lost. “I miss my aunt Mildred. I missed seeing my uncle Bud. I missed walking around. In New Orleans, you walk around. You sit down. You see people. You talk. There’s noise all the time—wreck on the I-10, the pool hall, somebody playing on a saxophone. Gunshots. Yeah, man, I even missed the gunshots.

And yet any of us might say this about city life anywhere. Such violence may be set in New Orleans but is it endemic to this city? In what way? Baum’s book needs an assessing spirit in league with its journalistic expanse. I recall William Least Heat-Moon’s “Pilotis” from River-Horse, a communal narrator collecting a host of characters on a cross-country river journey who comments on and directs the story. The device does not always work. But at least Heat-Moon tries to hinge the material so it swings out to something larger than its shifting tableaux. Witness narrative can feel soulless: It takes an author to raise a book. With Baum’s undistilled whole, there’s still no writer’s answer to that classic tune, “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”

***

Missing pre-Katrina New Orleans is at the heart of Zeitoun, a biographical gem by Dave Eggers, the author of the radical memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here Eggers focuses on one family and how the storm enforces their separation as well as causes a military takeover of the city with imprisoning consequences for those who stayed behind. The family is perfectly American, a mix of old and new south: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American immigrant, his wife Kathy Delphine from Baton Rouge, and their five children, one of which is from Kathy’s first marriage. They are both Muslims, he by birth, her by conversion. Kathy and Zeitoun (people find his last name easier to say) have a successful house painting business, employ several crews working on five or six jobs at a time, and own several properties.

Eggers begins the drama on Friday, August 26, 2005, two days before the storm hits, which allows him to tell the story of Kathy and Zeitoun’s dual resolves: the man stays, the woman and the kids leave. Eggers neither gets in their way (he, like Baum, is a dispassionate observer) nor disappears in uncovering New Orleans’ identity. Perhaps the Crescent City, despite its peculiar freewheeling draw and maritime dangers, is not as special as we want to believe it is. Its people are us, in whom we recognize our own simple acts of heroism and fear.

Having painted hundreds of houses for fifteen years and running several concurrent jobs, Zeitoun is trusted with the keys to several homes. When Kathy and the kids leave on vacation (sometimes Zeitoun goes, but not often) or a storm is due, Zeitoun stays behind. Eggers writes, “The kids waved. They always waved, all of his children, as he stood on the driveway. None of this was new. A dozen times they had lived this moment, as Kathy and his children drove off in search of sanctuary or rest, leaving Zeitoun to watch over his house and houses of his neighbors and clients all over the city.” After their goodbyes that Friday, “Kathy drove away, knowing they were all mad. Living in a city like this was madness, fleeing it was madness, leaving her husband alone in a home in the path of a hurricane was madness.”

And yet this is what we do. We risk our relationships for the good of others. We don’t just go it alone. Such connectedness, at the family and the business level, is what accounts for a city’s identity as much as history and culture.

The relationship between Kathy and Zeitoun is the centerpiece of the book. Eggers shapes their partnership: daily parting, phone-calling, thinking of each other; Zeitoun’s rushing to Kathy’s aid when she’s taken advantage of in business; their dinner-time chatter with the kids; and, most telling, Kathy’s pre-Zeitoun search for God, her disenchantment with money-grubbing Christian pastors, and her conversion to Islam via her sister who precedes her. Her coming to Islam is also her coming to Zeitoun, who is attracted to this American convert who freely wears the hijab or head scarf. Post-9/11, she is routinely a target of youths who rip the scarf off or stare at her derisively in stores. It’s curious that, before Katrina, an American white woman is the target of more racial profiling than her Syrian-born husband is. Not so afterwards. What’s more, Kathy gets it from her Baton-Rouge family as well. It’s not so much her marriage but her conversion that unravels the tight weave of family and church. “When she converted to Islam, the battles and misunderstandings multiplied.”

Zeitoun’s attitude toward his adopted country, how he deals with being a Syrian in New Orleans, mixes savvy and naivete. Prejudice about his ethnicity or past he understands. But no insight will save him once Bush’s war on terror targets him:

His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves? If you got him started on the subject, it was the end of any pleasant meal. He would begin with a defense of Muslims in America and expand his thesis from there. Since the attacks in New York, he would say, every time a crime was committed by a Muslim, that person’s faith was mentioned, regardless of its relevance. When a crime is committed by a Christian, do they mention his religion? If a Christian is stopped at the airport for trying to bring a gun on a place, is the Western world notified that a Christian was arrested today and is being questioned? . . . A white man robs a convenience store and do we hear he’s of Scottish descent?”

The subtlety of the immigrant’s argument with America involves his seeing us for what we are, for what we can’t see about ourselves. But here’s something we don’t want to see. Despite Zeitoun’s compassion for his adopted country – no doubt inspired by living and working in the one city in America, known for its tolerance – he still finds a limit to America’s welcome. The post-9/11 line is drawn at Islam, which, Zeitoun shows us, is too close to the Christian bone. Flawed religious thinking suggests a flawed religion: Americans will not question the bigotry of their faith.

Zeitoun becomes fast-paced, almost filmic, once Katrina strikes and Zeitoun and Kathy split up. She takes the kids to stay with a sister in Baton Rouge, which badly entangles, so she leaves for Phoenix, all the while telling Zeitoun to leave the city. In staying behind, watching their and others’ property, Zeitoun uses his aluminum canoe to rescue people and animals. He was, writes Eggers, “invigorated. He had never felt such urgency and purpose.” His desire to help conflicts with Kathy’s daily phone request that he leave—the TV news reports of violence, vandalism, roaming gangs, and murders are real.

What little of the larger picture Zeitoun does know is both advantage and danger. His world is the eerie quiet of a city buried by lake water that now tops nearly every refrigerator. Searching for survivors in attics, he competes with the fan boats, “the noise overwhelming,” which cannot hear the weakening howls of dogs and the elderly. One old woman whom he saves “likely would not have survived another night. It was the very nature of this small, silent craft that allowed [Zeitoun and a friend] to hear the quietest cries.”

For days, Zeitoun paddles the eight-to-ten feet deep water, navigating by roofs and street signs. He feeds dogs, disperses bottled water and MREs (meal, ready-to-eat), and examines the water, “darker now, opaque, streaked with oil and gasoline, polluted with debris, food, garbage, clothing, pieces of homes.” As he goes, Eggers tells Zeitoun’s back story. He remembers his deceased older brother, who, famous in Syria as a long-distance swimmer, was adored by his parents, his siblings, the president, and Zeitoun. Now he has his chance to prove his self-worth, live up to that blood-line legacy: “Be strong, be brave, be true. Endure. Be as good as Mohammed was.”

This, we learn, is why Zeitoun won’t leave. Kathy, putting the kids in school in Phoenix, grows frustrated that her husband won’t do for his family what he’s doing for New Orleans. All of sudden, panic sets in. In the middle of a phone call to his brother in Spain, Zeitoun drops off, and Kathy is frantic. She doesn’t hear from him for two weeks—just as the city swarms with National Guard. This mystery—a plot twist that should not be missed—challenges Kathy’s faith in her husband’s abilities and their government’s legality. The domestic hunt for terrorists shows its racist head as New Orleans is locked down in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

At times, Eggers’s writing seems to be a precis for something he may have wanted to flesh out. Part of the story is the story’s sketchiness, a slightly annoying as-told-to feel. When Kathy and the kids are taken in by her sister and her husband in Phoenix, she felt like “she was one of them, effortlessly so, and they treated her like a peer. They played video games and watched TV, and Kathy tried not to think about what had become of their home, where Zeitoun might be at that moment.” Such imprecision Baum would never have tolerated from his sources, let alone allowed in his writing—the high standard of a driven professional. Eggers is building the everyman story of this family, whose survivor narrative and moral arc is more important than insisting on details at every turn.

But this is a quibble. Details do abound, especially the inner kind. The palpable nature of Zeitoun and Kathy’s relationship is often heartrending. How kindly skillful Kathy is when she uses one of Zeitoun’s favorite expressions—”You are like the man who lost his camel and is looking for the rope”—to cajole her over-responsible husband to leave. How guiltily quiet Zeitoun is when he does not tell her what he’s seen: puppies shot in the head; a helicopter crash; gangs of armed young men surrounding his office.

While the world watched on CNN, a frightening tragedy unfolded in New Orleans. The disaster worsened not only from a category five hurricane and broken levee system upon the poor but also from the lawlessness that came in the wake of a five-day-delayed emergency response. That lawlessness is almost always reported as criminal gangs and looters.

But in Zeitoun we see a far worse criminal—militarized security and animal-like detention. When Zeitoun is arrested with dozens of men who stayed behind to help others or protect their homes, they are held as suspected looters and potential terrorists (of all things) and herded into open-air cages. This shame, which has largely gone unreported and which smacks of the iconic “it can’t happen here,” forms the heart of the story’s grueling end. Our government’s paranoid response to the New Orleans flood—which, for a grand moment, TV almost covered—confirms the experience of many citizens and immigrants in America. Those entities designated to “save” victims during disasters do little more than re-victimize them.

And yet, while Zeitoun’s incarceration was playing out, we had little idea such complicated family heroics were also going on, in part, because TV, much like FEMA, does not follow complication. Neither media nor agency gets the bigger human element—the magnetism of love, of how Zeitoun and Kathy, a thousand miles apart, brave the cages, both psychological and real, in which catastrophe imprisons them. That is the real story and Eggers’s triumph.

___
Thomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and a journalist for the San Diego Reader. He is also an essayist, critic, and memoirist. His Web site is www.thomaslarson.com.

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