Lurching, monosyllabic and with very little on its mind: this describes not just the archetypical zombie, but the majority of books featuring the flesh-eating undead. Of course, when literary lion Colson Whitehead picks up the trope and applies it to a novel of his own, he does more than just suck up his readers’ grey matter.
Mark Spitz (ironically nicknamed for the swimmer after a memorable firefight) and his crew of ‘sweepers’ live in a camp in Zone One – the first area of Manhattan to be reclaimed from predatory zombies following a global apocalypse. They don body armour and wander buildings looking to destroy stray ‘skels’ – that is, zombies – or ‘stragglers,’ passive individuals frozen in some important moment of their former lives. After two years in this world, Spitz and his cohorts trudge through gore and wait for the day skels cease shattering any feeling of security, so they can settle down to some semblance of normal life.
Though combat and close calls are a part of Zone One, the bulk of the novel moves past fear to an elegiac contemplation in quiet moments between engagements. And though the poetic melancholy shared by protagonist and author is lovely, the pacing of the story suffers and its happenings are less than compelling as a result. Yet the reader will at least be satisfied that zombies can sometimes stimulate brains just as well as they eat them.