by Peter Byrne
Neufeld, Josh: A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, 2009, NYC, Pantheon Books, ISBN 978-0-307-37814-9, a graphic novel, 193 pages, $24.95; Eggers, Dave: Zeitoun 2009, San Francisco, McSweeny's Books, ISBN 978-1-934781-63-0, numerous photos, 351 pages, $24.00.
"That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature."
—James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown.New Orleans is the future in the present; it is the future in which everywhere disaster strikes people are left to suffer and die on their own.
—Garry Potter, "New Orleans and Katrina," Swans, October 5, 2009.
(Swans - June 28, 2010) New Orleans is gone. It will no more return than Atlantis. The reason wasn't a hurricane called Katrina. That was at most a category 3 storm when it hit the city on August 29, 2005. The destruction of New Orleans was not a natural disaster like the devastation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The city survived the storm as it had so many others. It was destroyed by a deluge of water when the federal-built levees gave out. By August 31, 80% of New Orleans was flooded, some parts under fifteen feet of water.
Judge Duval of the federal District Court explained (Nov.18, 2009) why the levees failed. The Army Corps of Engineers had not properly maintained the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. A co-author of one of the exhaustive forensic investigations of the event called it "the greatest man-made engineering disaster since Chernobyl." The catastrophe had been prepared years before with the creation of the Gulf Outlet. To allow ships to reach the Mississippi, it had been recklessly cut through marshlands that served as natural levees.
In his graphic novel A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge Josh Neufeld isn't concerned with causes but with effects. He chooses seven residents and asks them how they lived through the city's ordeal. He then retells their stories in his panels. Non-fiction seems the proper vehicle to recount public calamities since they furnish more than enough high drama on their own. It means, however, that we never get below the skin of the people involved. They haven't the depth of fictional characters, and the author can tell us nothing but what they have told him. We only have to think of how uninteresting we ourselves would turn out in the hands of an author limited to what in an interview we admitted about our own feelings.
Neufeld as a graphic artist can use color and line to add density to his storytelling. He stays with one or two colors for the length of something like a chapter and then passes on to another color combination. These duets of sea foam and pistachio green, of jasmine yellow and persimmon, of canary and claret make for beauty. But they would be more expressive if each pair of colors was identified with the person or kind of action being depicted. Couldn't we stay with xanthine orange when following the neurasthenic and bristly Denise? Or with Quaker gray for the impassive Abbas? For dramatic effect Neufeld regularly leaves the four-panels-to-a-page format for a whole page or even a two-page spread to mark the big bangs in his accounts. He excels in striking a balance between actors and background. People never obscure the crumbling structures or the weather, key actors in the New Orleans debacle.
As we relish the artist's skill in making faces conjure up feelings, we can't silence a doubt or two. Is it the genre of the graphic novel or simply a general inclination of its artists to stick with immediate emotions and supply little context? Does graphic non-fiction always shy away from the larger picture? In the case of the destruction of New Orleans we want to know more than that Leo grieves over the loss of his comic book collection in the flood. Neither he nor his partner Michelle asks why there was a flood. Abbas simply shifts merchandise in his store upstairs without a word of blame for anyone when the water rushes in. Only the feisty Denise explodes over the little help that was available and the unfriendly stance of the military toward those needing it. Dr. Brobson, whose office is encumbered for days with a corpse, sums up the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: "FEMA failed the living and the dead." For Neufeld, though, the doctor is more interested in the reopening of Galatoire's restaurant than singling out the guilty.
Dave Eggers calls Zeitoun "a work of nonfiction." It too is based on what victims of the disaster told the author they went through. But because Eggers concentrates on one couple and has 351 pages of prose at his disposal his account manages to leave the reader with an epic experience. Crucial was his choice of Kathy and Abdulrahmen Zeitoun to lead him through the agony of New Orleans. Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant, had a thriving painting and contracting business in the city. Not only his work but his attitude made him perfectly representative of New Orleans. Strangely enough, the fact that he was a Muslim seemed to strengthen his identification with the place. It was as if he and his wife Kathy, cut off from everything else, had wagered their destiny, with no plan B, on New Orleans.
Kathy, a not untypical Baton Rouge girl, brought up a Southern Baptist, stepped out of line before meeting Zeitoun and became a Muslim. It hadn't made things easier with her family. In New Orleans she looked after her four young children and played an active part in her husband's business. This included rental properties whose management proved another factor in knitting the couple into the urban fabric.
With the warning of Katrina's coming, Kathy evacuated to Baton Rouge with the children. Zeitoun, concerned for his business and his property, remained. He busied himself looking after his clientele's houses and keeping an eye on his own. He soon discovered that he enjoyed his role of neighborhood watchman and guardian. The storm came and passed without irreparable damage, and he looked forward to Kathy's return. Then the levees burst and the flood came.
Zeitoun, surprisingly, took the new turn of events in stride. He didn't mind sleeping in a tent on the roof of his home. He began prowling the city in his aluminum canoe and from a watchman became a roving Good Samaritan. He ignored the order to evacuate as well as Kathy's plea for him to leave the city and join her and the children in Baton Rouge.
In New Orleans, Zeitoun was invigorated. He had never felt such urgency and purpose. In his first day in his flooded city, he had already assisted in the rescue of five elderly residents. There was a reason, he now knew, that he had remained in the city. He had felt compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning. He was needed. (Page 116)
In his work as an all-around builder, Zeitoun had always answered needs. But paddling his canoe through the streets responding to shouts from marooned old folks and stopping to feed starving pets was closer to pure adventure. He could put aside for a time his role as a devoted father and breadwinner. His own family or properties now seemed no more deserving of care than those of others. Zeitoun satisfied his deep hankering to be a white knight and perhaps also to no longer be an outsider.
Eggers will chronicle Zeitoun's good works on the water alternating with details of Kathy's solicitude for him and her difficulties settling in elsewhere with her children. He will also devote long flashbacks to each of their back-stories. We learn of Kathy's eight siblings, her failed first marriage, and her conversion. In going into Zeitoun's family life in Syria, the author himself appears to be embarked on a learning curve, intrigued by the force of patriarchy and the adhesiveness of an extended family. Eggers never quite draws the conclusion he nevertheless suggests: Zeitoun's identification with New Orleans has a lot to do with making the city into his clan or a substitute for his sprawling family dispersed over continents.
Zeitoun's waterlogged fairy tale ends abruptly. In one of his properties he has encouraged a spirit of camaraderie and welcomed a couple of displaced men. In one sense they were all breaking the law since mandatory evacuation had been ordered. But what was about to happen had more to do with an official document that law enforcement agencies and the National Guard received just before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The document admitted that terrorists were unlikely to strike during a hurricane, but then went on all the same to enumerate many ways they could possibly do so. It set the stage for paranoia.
Out of the blue, on September 6th, a boatload of police and military personnel arrived at Zeitoun's property pointing M-16s. They arrested the four men as looters and refused to check Zeitoun's identity as owner of the house. The prisoners were turned over to the National Guard who delivered them to the New Orleans Passenger Terminal. This had become Camp Greyhound, a prison quickly improvised the 2, 3, and 4 September when residents were waiting on rooftops to be rescued. It was a vast grid of chain-linked fencing that recalled Guantánamo Bay. The four men were given orange suits and thrown into cages 15 feet square.
The presence of dogs was constant. There were at least two always visible, their handlers sure to parade them past the cages in close proximity. Occasionally one would explode into barking at some prisoner. Someone in Zeitoun's cage mentioned Abu Ghraib, wondering at what point they'd be asked to pose naked, in a vertical pyramid, and which guard would lean into the picture, grinning. (Page 238)
At no time in the whole course of his imprisonment would Zeitoun be allowed a telephone call or any other contact with the outside world. When he complained to a soldier-guard he was told, "You guys are al Qaeda." Lights and noise prevented sleep and the recalcitrant were pepper sprayed directly in the face. One passing soldier looked at Zeitoun and murmured, "Taliban."
After three days in the cage without blankets or other furnishing except a portable toilet, the four men were transferred to the Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison. Hunt rented space to the Department of Homeland Security with the result that Zeitoun and his Syrian American friend (they had been isolated together) were refused the rights of maximum-security prisoners. A guard told Zeitoun: "You're not our prisoners. You're FEMA's problem."
Like a fiction writer Eggers squeezes as much suspense as he can out of Zeitoun's jail time. Readers know he's suffering but alive. Not Kathy, who after two weeks admits to herself that her children are fatherless. The situation at her sister's in Baton Rouge having become untenable, she drives on to Muslim friends in Phoenix. Only on September 19 will she learn that Zeitoun is still alive. It's then he manages to convince a very frightened, black, prison-visiting missionary to telephone her.
It will take another ten days and the exertions of lawyers to free Zeitoun. (His health like Kathy's will be seriously impaired by the experience.) His Syrian friend was eventually released, all charges dropped, but without the $10,000, his life savings, that, immigrant fashion, he had been carrying when arrested. The third and fourth men were American-born. One, Zeitoun's tenant, served five months and lost the $2,400 he had with him. The other, a passer-by that Zeitoun had allowed to use his phone served eight months at Hunt.
How many ways are there for fiction writers to approach the disappearance of New Orleans beneath the Gulf? Even writers who chose non-fiction don't agree. Josh Neufeld is determined not to cast the first or any other stone at anyone, including FEMA, the military, or the federal government. Eggers, who has already refined the ghosted autobiography as a genre in What Is The What (See Swans December 31, 2007, On The Dinka Express), here reaches an understated perfection. The reader fears for a while that he's taking the non-committal path of Neufeld. But in fact Eggers is simply sidestepping the stridency of denunciation. By letting Zeitoun, an American Candide, tell his story in a low key, he makes the reader draw his own conclusion of astonishment and outrage.
Other fiction writers have chosen more direct means. James Lee Burke, veteran of the detective fiction, let his rage jam the clockwork of his noir plot. (See Swans June 16, 2008, 9/11 In The Swamp.) His words quiver with an emotion we find in neither Neufeld nor Eggers:
During the night hurricane-force winds and a tidal surge had driven oceanic amounts of water up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, nicknamed the "Mr. Go" canal, all the way through St. Bernard Parish into Orleans Parish and the low-lying neighborhoods along the Intercoastal Canal. After sunrise, residents in the Lower Ninth Ward said they heard explosions under the levee that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Rumors quickly spread from house to house -- either terrorists or racists were dynamiting the only barrier that prevented the entirety of the lake from drowning the mostly black population of the Lower Nine.
The rumors were of course false. The levees burst because they were structurally weak and had only a marginal chance of surviving a category 3 storm, much less one of category 5 strength. Every state emergency official knew this. The Army Corps of Engineers knew this. The National Hurricane Center in Miami knew this.
But apparently the United States Congress and the current administration in Washington, D.C., did not, since they had dramatically cut funding for repair of the levee system only a few months earlier.
The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke, Pages 31-32
After her ordeal Kathy Zeitoun was still in shock: "Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us?" Sinclair Lewis, seventy-five years earlier in It Can't Happen Here, saw it coming. As for Burke, he doesn't pussyfoot, "If we have a precedent in our history for what happened in New Orleans, it's lost on me."
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