Doubleday: 260 pp., $25.95
Colson Whitehead really couldn’t have picked a better time to write a zombie novel. Even looking past its Halloween-adjacent release date, “Zone One” comes at a time when such horrors are enjoying a pop culture renaissance that arguably began with Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” in 2002. In recent years the fascination has grown to include fan conventions, groaningly slouched “zombie walks” through city streets and the splatter-core success of AMC’s adaptation of the graphic novel series, “The Walking Dead,” which drew record ratings in its season premiere.
Whitehead has explained in interviews that his interest stems from an urge to revisit the horror stories that framed his childhood rather than any sort of trend-hopping, and the proof is in the book’s uniquely affecting results. Though certainly as grisly as any of the genre’s other memorable excursions that explored such visceral pleasures as those that come from briskly thwacking the undead with a cricket bat (see 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead”), Whitehead’s zombie universe is a much more tragic and undeniably more human place.
Opening with a romantic remembrance of a still “normal” New York from a young survivor-turned-soldier ironically nicknamed Mark Spitz (a harrowing incident involving a refusal to swim to safety is explained later), “Zone One” spares the form’s conventional reliance on summer-movie scares and chase scenes — though there’s plenty of those too — and instead turns an unsparing focus on the dark reality such a world-crumbling plague unleashes.
Now part of a militia governed by what’s left of a hobbled, corporate-sponsored “American Phoenix” government in Buffalo, Mark Spitz is part of an ambitious effort to reclaim a country for the living that starts with a block-by-block sweep through a walled-off section of Lower Manhattan that gives the book its name. Describing the task in eliminating remaining zombies both volatile (“skels”) and those infected but frozen in a sad, catatonic loop of their usual lives in the city’s broken-down buildings (“stragglers”), Whitehead casts this three-day spine of the novel with a rich mix of wartime satire and darkly funny social commentary. Loaded with vivid details about a fallen city’s lost leftovers, the novel at various points touches on images from our current recession, the aftermath of Sept. 11 and a futile search for sanity among soldiers that recalls a sort of zombie-centric update of “Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s hauntingly intimate collection of Vietnam war reporting from 1977.
Because as much as Whitehead was inspired by and occasionally references the ‘70s disaster movies that share DNA with “Zone One,” it’s his remarkable turns of phrase that lift the story above the gory rubble of a midday matinee. Whether charged with bleak sadness or bone-dry humor, sentences worth savoring pile up faster than the body count, such as cynically acute details like three young triplets who become a reality show-like cause for the soldiers, and a new national anthem, “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme From Reconstruction).” At one point, Whitehead compares humanity’s shift to the ravenous undead as self-actualization for the secretly immoral or those too timid to chase their dreams. “I have always been like this,” Whitehead coldly observes in a mob of townspeople-turned-monsters. “Now I’m more me.”
Even as “Zone One’s” structure pingpongs between flashbacks to Mark Spitz’s tense struggle during the plague’s early days in doomed friendships and failed hideouts and the ashy horrors of a hollowed-out Manhattan, disorienting flashes from past and present begin blurring into each other in a way that mirrors Mark Spitz’s growing PASD — “Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder,” an absurd therapeutic label from the new world that’s just one of the details showing that even as civilization crumbles there’s plenty of room for humanity’s old, unsavory habits. Linguistically cryptic military diagnoses, the PR churn of the war machine and a merciless city that fed on its own long before its citizens started feeding on one another still endure in Whitehead’s apocalypse, all the way to the bitter end.
And maybe that’s the scariest part.