The pop culture appetite for zombie fiction the last few years has been nearly as insatiable as the wretched creatures the stories portray, spawning TV ratings smashes like AMC's "The Walking Dead," best-selling books including "World War Z" and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," and successful cult flicks like "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead."
That's enough variations on a pretty limited template (drooling undead masses wander post-apocalyptic landscape, yearning to eat living flesh) to suggest a question for Colson Whitehead, who tackles the zombie novel in "Zone One" after establishing himself previously as a writer of thoughtful, award-bait fiction. For a writer of his skill and intent, what could be left to say that's particularly interesting about these fictional creatures and the havoc they wreak?
Whitehead answers with a dark, chilling piece of speculation on the attempts of the survivors of a massive plague to reclaim lower Manhattan against the creatures that survivors have come to call "skels" for their withered, skeletonlike appearance. And while Whitehead offers some good scares and scenes of swift and compelling action, it's his deeper exploration of the human capacity for survival as well as his concise, often witty, portrayal of the everyday details of a zombie-fied world that really shine.
As "Zone One" begins, it's been a few years give or take since the events of what the survivors call "Last Night" - the tipping point of the unexplained plague, the day when most survivors witnessed variations on a mass, collective horror: husbands killing wives, parents killing children, loved ones literally consuming each other. "The stories were the same, whether Last Night enveloped them on Long Island or in Lancaster or Louisville," Whitehead writes.
The Long Island story in question belongs to Mark Spitz - you'll have to read the book to find out why he shares a name with the 1970s Olympic swimmer - who, we learn via flashback, returned to his parents' suburban home from an Atlantic City weekend to find his mother feasting on his father in their bedroom. Like most other survivors, he immediately goes on the run, sleeping in trees, bunking down in a deserted toy store and making other ad hoc arrangements but never getting too comfortable. Occasionally he encounters fellow survivors as they struggle to achieve communal living arrangements in secluded farmhouses or gated mansions.
Mark Spitz is unremarkable in every way, "a thorough, inveterate B," Whitehead writes. But he shows a surprising knack for staying alive against the skel hordes, and after a few months or years on the run - Whitehead is murky on the timeline - Spitz falls in with the forces of a reemergent U.S. government, a self-dubbed "American Phoenix" based in Buffalo, N.Y., that's dispatching teams of Marines around the Eastern seaboard to mow down millions of the milling undead.
Spitz is assigned to a team of "sweepers," civilian survivors armed with rifles who follow after the Marines to kill off lingering skels and down another zombie varietal - the "stragglers," a tiny contingent of the undead who rather than staggering about remain frozen in place, creating horrible tableaus for all eternity. After distinguishing himself in a team clearing off interstate freeways in Connecticut, Spitz is reassigned to help secure a cordoned-off portion of lower Manhattan that the new government hopes to reclaim for human habitation - the Zone One of the title.
As a younger man, Mark Spitz longed to live in New York City, and Whitehead has some satirical fun contrasting the city's one-time desirability with its present awful shambles. As Spitz and his sweeper team comb apartment buildings and parking ramps for skels and stragglers, Whitehead flashes back to show how Spitz stayed alive after Last Night - and builds a convincing basis for the protagonist's skepticism in the face of what appears to be new hope of a resurgent humanity.
Whitehead writes with a sharp, descriptive power, reeling off one pithy observation after the next in a way that invests this post-apocalyptic world with a surprisingly tactile presence. His sentences carry a gruesome zing, as when he imagines the demographics of a zombie hoard marching up Broadway: "the dead things still proudly indicating ... the tribes to which they had belonged, in gray pinstriped suits, classic rock T-shirts, cowboy boots, dashikis, striped cashmere cardigans, fringed suede vests, plush jogging suits. What they had died in."
By starting with an unreal scenario and summoning a surprising degree of believability, Whitehead puts his readers right there amid the horror, imagining: What would I do if something like this actually happened? That's the sort of thinking that really can give you nightmares.