Zeitoun

In the nearly five years since 80 per cent of the city of New Orleans flooded in late August of 2005, there have been some necessary and remarkable books in what inevitably has come to be called the "post-Katrina" category: The Storm, Ivor van Heerden's cogent and comprehensive account of his team's investigation into the cause of the disaster; Path of Destruction, John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein's longer view of New Orleans's three-century dance with water; Tom Piazza's Why New Orleans Matters, an impassioned and fervent argument for the city's survival; 1 Dead in Attic, a collection of mordant and chilling essays by Chris Rose, who went from being an amiably trivial comic columnist to the eloquent voice of the city's pain, anger and (let it never be forgotten) dark and wicked sense of humour; and Nine Lives, Dan Baum's moving portrait of nine wildly disparate - and disparately wild - New Orleanians, pre- and post-disaster.

None of these books, however, tells a story anything like the tale slowly, gently laid out like a nightmarish multi-course meal in Dave Eggers's Zeitoun. Living in New Orleans much of the time, I have heard thousands of "Katrina stories" - tales of evacuation, dispossession, loss, confusion, despair, hope and determination. People in the city are born storytellers and August 2005, although it took so much, gave them incredible tales to tell. But I had never encountered a story like the one narrated by Eggers, which he has gleaned from interviews with Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant and successful painting contractor, his wife and his family.

Had it been written in 1999 as a dystopian fantasy of a 21st-century America in physical and moral tatters, Zeitoun would have been dismissed as laughable or implausible. But read now, after all we've lived through and all we have learned about the US in the past decade, it belongs in a category that becomes increasingly crowded as the years pass: "Amazing But Not Surprising". In this case, the subcategory would be "Stunning, Shocking, Appalling - But Not Surprising".

Initially, it seems as if Eggers is spending too much time with his portrait of a family living the American dream - immigrants-turned-successful-entrepreneurs living the good life in an intoxicatingly welcoming city. In the run-up to the disaster, he focuses a little too much on Zeitoun's refusal to believe that catastrophe will follow the evacuation warnings. We know how this story turns out, so the device seems to overplay the irony somewhat. Of course it will be catastrophic.

ut in fact we don't know how this story turns out. In taking the time to help us get to know the Zeitoun family, and learn about their roots in Syria and their love (and fear) of the ocean, Eggers ensures that what happens in the wake of the flooding is not happening to a symbol or a stranger; it is happening to someone who is not like us, yet very much like us.

Eggers is blessed with a story Hollywood movie-makers would kill for, except that salvation from the horror comes not at the hands of The Hero, nor even a hero, but just a man taking what would ordinarily be a trivial risk. We don't even know his name. The author treats the material with the respect it deserves, his sentences eloquently restrained, scrupulously reporting the wonder and bemusement of Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy, at the startling turn their lives have taken. This narrative discipline adds to the story's power.

So what's not to like? Just this: Eggers is too good a writer to make continued use of what my New Orleans friends call "Katrina shorthand". While he describes, in ample quotidian detail, the flooding Zeitoun is caught up in once he decides to stay in the city despite the warnings, Eggers refers constantly to "the storm", "the hurricane" and "Katrina", as if those terms accurately account for the cause of the Zeitouns' suffering. If he doesn't know better, he should.

Two independent forensic engineering investigations have concluded that the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made event, not a natural disaster. We're not talking conspiracy theories here - no deliberate dynamiting of the levees or anything of that sort - but what a federal judge has described (in a scathing decision against the US army Corps of Engineers) as a wilful disregard for the obligation to build safely the "protection system" the city was promised four decades ago by the government.

Naturally, this isn't the story Eggers sets out to tell, and he shouldn't feel bound to go out of his way to tell it. But it should be remembered that Katrina bypassed New Orleans. The flooding started even before the hurricane made landfall in Mississippi. What happened to New Orleans would be better described as "the flood", or "the disaster", without violating either accuracy or sentence flow. "Katrina shorthand" propagates the very inhumane, bland ignorance that almost ended up swallowing Abdulrahman Zeitoun whole.

Zeitoun
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, £18.99

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in "The Simpsons" and was Derek Smalls in "This is Spinal Tap". His album "Greed and Fear" was released on 2 March