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Reporters & Subjects

I had nightmares two nights ago after nearly finishing “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers: http://store.mcsweeneys.net/index.cfm/fuseaction/catalog.detail/object_id/73d53fd3-b86f-42e7-b8d4-7dd6e3a71d78/Zeitoun.cfm. My extremely elderly mother was reading it for her book club the last time I went up to see her. Because she was so upset, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle at her kitchen table and told her I would read it right away. If I’d ordered it from the McSweeney store, the Zeitoun Foundation would have received more of the proceeds. No matter, at least part of the payment to Amazon will go to the Zeitoun Foundation and be distributed to reputable NGO’s working to rebuild New Orleans.

"Zeitoun" is a masterful work of collaborative nonfiction writing, the subjects and the reporter working together to create an accurate narrative. The narrator/reporter, Dave Eggers, is entirely invisible and the prose is under-stated. It is reminiscent of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and just as compelling. “Hiroshima” was published in The New Yorker magazine in August 1946, a year after World War II ended. The article was based on Hersey’s interviews with atomic bomb survivors. Hersey recorded oral histories from the victims and shaped them into readable prose. He gave the victims a voice. Eggers has done the same with a New Orleans family who survived the Katrina disaster. The story of how Eggers found the family and the three-year process of creating the book can be read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/07/dave-eggers-zeitoun-hurricane-katrina.

I suggest you read the interview with Eggers—or others available on the internet—after you have finished the book as the dramatic tension does not abate until the last section. The reader lives the story with the Zeitouns in real-time as the events unfold again in the telling.

Over the years, Dave Eggers has become a writer of conscience whose work has a socially useful purpose. Such writing can often become simplistic, over-written, stereotyped, or polemical. But the masters of the form--Hersey, Eggers, Norman Mailer, Dillard and many others, avoid these pitfalls with a carefully constructed narrative persona, a reporter who remains in the background yet, ironically, is felt keenly by the reader as an empathic presence.

I remember talking once to Jonathan Kwitny, a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a book I was reviewing called "Endless Enemies: Americas Worldwide War Against Its Own Best Interests." Kwitny had served in the Peace Corps in Africa and he returned there as a mature reporter. I asked him why the horrific stories he was telling felt so understated and his reply was—and I paraphrase here—that he wanted to give the reader a chance to breathe and to feel his own emotions. Dave Eggers has done the same.

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