Jason Byassee: Basic decency or original sin?

With his patient listening and celestial writing, Dave Eggers is a worthy heir to Studs Terkel.

One day, I’m sure, Dave Eggers will write a book that doesn’t change how I see the world. “You Shall Know Our Velocity” rang in my head for years. “What is the What” made me want to go to Sudan. And now, “Zeitoun” made me reflect on the goodness and brokenness of America like no other work. I’ve not even read his “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”-- and I hear it’s his best.

Eggers spoke at Duke recently on “Zeitoun,” his nonfiction book about a Syrian-American immigrant, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and his native-born Louisianan convert Muslim wife, Kathy. The story is about Zeitoun’s deep goodness in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Rescuing people and feeding animals, Zeitoun was “electrified,” as Eggers describes it, by being in precisely the place God wanted him to be, to bring mercy to those in deep need.

You know where this is going. The book is also about the abysmal way Zeitoun was treated by others for his deep goodness -- wrongly imprisoned as a looter and then disappearing into the prison system as a terrorist. Even more impressively, the book is about Zeitoun’s comeback, his return to help rebuild coastal Louisiana. A successful businessman who had painted and rehabbed hundreds of homes in New Orleans, Zeitoun was a valued member of the community before Katrina. He had keys to hundreds of homes, given to him by people who knew him to be reliable and who trusted him to watch their property and feed their animals. After the storm, he is once again an integral part of life in New Orleans. As Eggers says, “There is no faith like the faith of a builder of homes in coastal Louisiana. There is no better way to prove to God and neighbor that you were there, that you are there, that you are human, than to build."

Eggers is an heir to Studs Terkel, the great oral historian and chronicler of “ordinary” American people. In work after work, Terkel took the profound step of listening carefully and writing down what he heard. The result is glorious -- Barbara Brown Taylor has lauded the effect that Terkel’s book “Working” has had on her. Terkel was a local legend in Chicago. Because he never learned to drive, Terkel didn’t have a drivers license, so when he arrived at the White House without an ID to receive a National Humanities Award in his 90s, security wouldn’t let him in. The identification he could produce was a Chicago Transit Authority senior ID, essentially a bus and “L” pass, and that got him through.

Listening is difficult and glorious. Zeitoun spent post-Katrina days in a canoe that Kathy had teased him for buying. Why would he ever need it? When the waters rose, it was more than handy. Rescuers in helicopters and fanboats couldn’t hear people weakly calling for help. Zeitoun could.

In his talk at Duke, Eggers confessed that he initially thought he could write “What is the What,” profiling one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” in a year. It was too important to take longer --war was still raging. But it took four years to get it right. “Zeitoun” took three. As a journalist of sorts, I am humbled. This man listened to everyone, firsthand, for years, and only then did he talk. That’s profound, radical, Christ-like patience.

But Eggers isn’t motivated by a desire to imitate Jesus. It’s something more basically American. He quoted Terkel the other night: “I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence -- providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.” This is a surprising conclusion to a book about how an unbelievably good man was treated in unimaginable ways by his fellow Americans. Yet when pushed in the question-and-answer period after his talk, Eggers stood by it. The overwhelming reaction to “Zeitoun” has been one of apology. People have written and said they were sorry on behalf of America. Eggers’ own work is an example of this sort of faith in the basic goodness and decency of Americans “once they have the facts.” Once we see something going this wrong we are outraged, and we want it fixed.

As a Christian believer in original sin, I’m less sure about this basic decency and goodness claim. Original sin doesn’t mean we assume people will be nasty and malicious to one another all the time. Plenty of pagans are better humans than plenty of Christians. But it does mean we oughtn’t be surprised when we do see grievous sin, nor when we commit it ourselves. God’s saving work on us in Jesus was costly, suggesting whatever mess we’re in, it’s deep.

That said, I’m glad Eggers and Terkel have their faith. It makes them good listeners. And until we Christians can produce work as patient and beautiful as “Zeitoun” and “Working,” perhaps the burden of proof is on us to show they’re wrong.