It rained all last week and then some. Bad for the tomatoes but good for reading. As the real storm season approaches, we found ourselves engaged in two new books set in Louisiana before, during and after Hurricane Katrina four years ago.
In keeping with our summer of the short story, the first book was The Southern Cross, a prize-winning debut collection by Skip Horack. These 16 short stories are grouped by season, set during the arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the hurricane is omnipresent within these stories, it is Horack's authentic characters who dominate this haunting fictional world.
Readers are introduced to a little girl who warns her neighbor that God and Jesus are planning to punish the people of New Orleans. An exotic dancer hitches a ride with a fanatical preacher. A father comes to terms with his divorce and separation from his son. In "The Redfish," readers meet Luther, a murderer, wrongly convicted for the murder of someone he didn't kill, who in a comical, Cashian way ends up duct-taped alongside his ex-girlfriend's mother in a trailer about to be consumed by Katrina.
It is difficult to choose the most moving story in the collection, but we were partial to "Borderlands," the story of a high school student who, while hunting, discovers the murdered corpse of one of his classmates, or "The Final Conner," the story of Ellis, who travels to Europe to rescue the remains of his grandfather, killed in the War, only to discover his family's past may be darker than the black German soil encapsulating his grandfather's remains.
After reading this collection it is difficult not to compare Horack's stories to another of the South's most powerful writers, Larry Brown. In time, these stories may be the introduction to the work of Horack in the same way Facing the Music became an introduction to the work of Brown.
Our next storm book was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Honestly, we weren't anxious to read another grave, non-fictional account of Katrina-era New Orleans, but we knew if anyone could give the subject a fresh spin, it was Eggers. The author found this story through his Voices of Witness book series, which collected and published oral histories from Katrina by Gulf Coast survivors. Among the most compelling stories of the hurricane came from Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American who ran a successful painting business in New Orleans.
Eggers spends the first half of the book introducing us to Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, and a close family network that extends from Arizona to Spain to Syria. Tracking the events that lead up to the hurricane, we witness through the eyes of Abdulrahman and Kathy their parting — Kathy and the children's flight to Baton Rouge, then Arizona, and Zeitoun's dogged mission to stay and protect his home and work sites. The book was a bit slow-going at first, since the build-up is naturally devoid of suspense (we know what's going to happen when Katrina lands) and Eggers strips his prose of its arch humor and style for a more succinct, journalistic approach. We were afraid this would turn out to be a rather mundane account of one man's struggle — albeit dignified — in a tragedy with plenty of tremendous stories.
Then halfway through the book, everything changes for Zeitoun. Whereas he'd spent his days after the storm rescuing neighbors and delivering supplies in his second-hand canoe, now he found himself in the most unfortunate, and unforeseen, of circumstances. The book kicks into overdrive, and you won't be able to put it down. Zeitoun's ordeal, missed by the media during the Katrina frenzy, sheds a harsh new light on the New Orleans-Katrina experience. It is a story that will astonish, frighten and infuriate. Most likely, it will forever color how you view the Hurricane Katrina disaster, especially when considering the government debacle that furthered the tragedy. And for anyone who still believes the government was not culpable in this event, Zeitoun should be required reading. Perhaps it should be required anyway. The book is remarkable for the ugliness it reveals, yet equally important for the strength and endurance it depicts in the character of Zeitoun.