Zombies are the monsters-du-jour, and happily for fans of the undead, these ugly brain-chompers have become as ubiquitous to pop culture as pasty teenage blood-suckers.
Consider AMC's acclaimed apocalyptic TV series "The Walking Dead," the Jane Austen-pastiche "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," the Brit comedy "Shaun of the Dead" and the film that helped kick-start the genre, the zombies-on-speed U.K.-set "28 Days Later." (Which, of course, took its own inspiration from the daddy of them all, George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead.") Meanwhile, Brad Pitt is filming an adaptation of Max Brooks' wonderfully clever "oral history" of zombie war novel "World War Z."
So to make a dent, an author had better bring something fresh to the table. And despite the clear talents of Colson Whitehead, author of the acclaimed mid-'80s-set novel "Sag Harbor," "Zone One" simply does not. The story of survivors of a post-zombie plague world, it is fast-paced, occasionally chilling and compellingly set in the ruins of a wasteland-ish New York City. But it cannot help but feel, well, as stale as the stench of zombie. (I assume.)
Take Whitehead's description of the new world's tendency to rerupture; this is a lovely passage, yet one that feels ripped from "The Road" or any of its ilk:
"In practice, something always went wrong. The Carolinas, for example. Someone snuck back to the mainland for penicillin or scotch, or a boatful of aspirants rowed ashore bearing a stricken member of their party they refused to leave behind, sad orange life vests encircling their heaving chests. The new micro-societies inevitably imploded, on the island getaways, in reclaimed prisons, at the mountaintop ski lodge accessible only by sabotaged funicular, in the underground survivalist hideouts finally summoned to utility. The rules broke down."
This is the landscape of "Zone One," a world of "Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder" and zombie stragglers -- known here as "skels" -- roaming abandoned office buildings. Whitehead writes with great humor and a keen sense of the ironic. Our protagonist, named Mark Spitz (yep), finds himself in the "Human Resources" department of what once was a bustling law firm, a scene Whitehead describes as such: "He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving."
It is this humor that elevates "Zone One," despite its flaws, above something like last summer's much-buzzed beach-read "Robopocalypse," a jumbled mess of a narrative that wasted clever strands (an elderly Japanese scientist in love with his female robot creation) among far too many tales of hackneyed, one-note survivalists. Whitehead knows the dangers of being deadly earnest, and he happily avoids it.
There is one element of "Zone One" that should be of particular interest to locals:
Buffalo, N.Y., is the central locale of the post-zombie reconstruction. Finally, some new jobs in the Queen City.
"He'd never been to Buffalo," Whitehead writes of his protagonist, "and now it was the exalted foundry of the future. The Nile, the Cradle of Reconstruction. All the best and brightest (and, most important, still breathing) had been flown up to Buffalo, where they got the best grub, reveled in 2 4/7 generators and uncurtailed hot showers on command. In turn, they had to rewind catastrophe."
It's an intriguing, clever choice of headquarters by Whitehead, and he avoids the easy temptation of making it a joke. (There is but one reference to Buffalo wings.) No, his choice of Buffalo, it seems, is simultaneously respectful and a tad ironic. Why not the Queen City as ground zero for bureaucratic miasma?
For all of its ho-hum pleasures, however, "Zone One" remains curiously uninvolving, with few memorable characters (especially Spitz), and, despite Whitehead's attempt at reinventing the genre while staying true to its usual tropes, it is only occasionally a successful read.
The choice of Buffalo, though, remains utterly inspired. Here is a fellow survivalist explaining the provisional government's response to a new strand of zombie to Spitz: "Buffalo's still trying to explain what makes one person become your regular pain-in-the-ass skel, and what makes another into a straggler. That 1 percent. Buffalo's not really known for explaining s---."
Now how can a Western New Yorker not be charmed by that?
Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree and a frequent News film and book critic.
By Colson Whitehead
259 pages, $25.95