Published by Soho Press on June 5, 2012
The best news about Zombie is that the only zombies in the story are metaphorical. Jesus is one (back from the dead). So is a pill-popping mom who is usually zoned out (the living dead). As befits its title, the story takes a horrific twist but it never quite becomes a horror novel. Zombie is too funny to be frightening, but it also makes serious points about the nature of everyday monsters.
Like all straight teenage boys, Jeremy Barker is obsessed with girls, although he gets nosebleeds when he’s aroused. The highlight of his summer was seeing his neighbor Tricia naked. Jeremy is also obsessed with zombies. He thinks the high school he’s about to enter should have security measures in place to counteract a potential zombie attack. Although he’s attending the Byron Hall Catholic School for Boys, he seems wholly unprepared for the rituals (including confession) in which he is expected to participate. On the other hand, when a priest tells Jeremy that “zombies have more in common with Catholics than most people care to admit,” Jeremy knows he has found a friend. The priest, in fact, recommends The Greatest Story Ever Told as an underappreciated zombie movie.
Jeremy is supposed to be taking Ritalin but he isn’t fond of pills. Jeremy’s mother, who is a bigger fan of pills than Jeremy, left his father some time ago, leaving behind stacks of women’s magazines that Jeremy devours. Jeremy’s brother has also moved out, leaving Jeremy alone with his dad. Jeremy’s father (Ballantine) lives in his own world, a world that includes Jeremy only when his father wants to impart fatherly advice, including the kind of knot Jeremy should sport on his necktie (the bigger the knot, the bigger the … or so Jeremy’s dad believes). Ballantine disappears every night and Jeremy doesn’t believe his claim that he’s spending his time with a nurse. The mystery of Ballantine’s secret life deepens when Jeremy finds a disturbing DVD among his father’s belongings -- disturbing in part because Jeremy recognizes his English teacher in the video.
Jeremy offers opinions on varied topics -- boxers versus briefs, how to survive a zombie apocalypse or an art exhibit -- while his friends dispense dating advice, providing amusing digressions from an amusingly meandering story. The lurking mystery of Ballantine’s nocturnal activities is resolved in a manner that mixes Dostoevsky, Frankenstein, Eyes Wide Shut, and existential philosophy. That doesn’t sound funny, but it is, in a twisted sort of way.
Fans of zombie movies might appreciate Jeremy’s running commentary on the many zombie films he’s seen (including the underrated Zombie Strippers). Jeremy sees zombie movies as morality tales or parables in which zombies, having no stake in humanity, represent amorality in its purest form. Of course, it isn’t necessary to be a zombie to be soulless -- witness those around the world (including Jeremy’s father during the Vietnam War) who have made a profession of torturing others.
Zombie is written in an informal, chatty style. Chapters are short, sentences are snappy, dialog is sharp. It is a quick and fun read, yet the book has a surprising degree of literary merit. Characters are smart and brash and they analyze each other in insightful ways.
If you don’t like books with depressing endings, you might want to give Zombie a pass. My larger complaint about the ending is its abruptness. A number of story threads are left dangling; a number of characters who seemed to be important to the story simply disappear. Still, I think Zombie accomplishes its goal. This is a novel about survival, and despite the depressing outcome, there’s a degree of warmth and hopefulness in Jeremy’s ability to survive a metaphorical zombie apocalypse.
(Like most boys attending a Catholic boy’s school, Jeremy has a foul mouth. That adds to the humor, and I mention it only for the benefit of readers who screen books for their kids or who choose to avoid reading naughty language.)