Dead on Arrival: Whitehead Gives Zombies a Shot

Colson Whitehead (by Erin Patrice O'Brien)

Zombies are rotten with appetite. This makes them ripe for a certain kind of satire. They are seedy. They are stooped. They stagger and slobber and groan. If they sometimes resemble the homeless, they also resemble the hipster. They wear the sweaters of the civilization they have destroyed. They eat only free-range. “One man shrieked,” writes Colson Whitehead in Zone One (Doubleday, 272 pages, $25.95), “and then the man’s cries sputtered to a wet gurgle. They recognized the sound of people being eaten.” Readers may recognize the sound of a celebrated novelist practicing his deadpan.

The locus of Zone One is New York City, which notoriously lacks the human touch in real life. Nowhere else on earth, the author suggests, would the advent of zombies be less of an event. “New York City in death was very much like New York City in life,” Mr. Whitehead writes. “It was still hard to get a cab, for instance.” The jokes come spring-loaded by truisms. “‘I don’t think we’re sweeping Queens anytime soon,’ said the Lieutenant.” Why? “‘It’s Queens.’” Parochialism is perforce most farcical against the backdrop of world events. Only the hackles of a New Yorker could rise at out-of-towners after the apocalypse. “It was Mark Spitz’s first glimpse of Manhattan since the coming of the plague, and he thought to himself, My God, it’s been taken over by tourists.” At least the undead will never undertip. “‘Parking is a bitch’ over by Wonton Main,” somebody tells Mark Spitz, the novel’s protagonist, who pines for “a shred of uptown.”

New Yorkers are not alone in recasting the end times in pettier terms. Mark Spitz meets a New Jerseyan who prefers fleeing from zombies over the alternative—“bash[ing] their heads in with a baseball bat of course.” She is not a pacifist, not a weakling; she explains that she runs because she enjoys “the cardio”: “I haven’t been in this kind of shape since college,” she crows. For others, the new demons are barely visible through the throng of the old ones. “I was an alcoholic, and I’m still an alcoholic,” says one alcoholic. In the aftermath of the end of the world, the single males miss single females. “‘Hard enough meeting a good woman,’ Jerry said. ‘And now everybody’s dead, to boot.’”

Mr. Whitehead has tended to write novels that refract social critique through fantastical scenarios, in which the language is strung like a conductive material between dual meanings. He has written a mordant novel of elevators, a moving novel of slavery, a quirky novel of branding, and, most recently and incongruously, Sag Harbor, a roman à clef of late adolescence on Long Island. Now, as if to repudiate the unflecked realism of his bildungsroman, he has written a book spattered with “strawberry jam, or something decidedly less wholesome.” “Everybody needs a shtick to keep competitive, Mark Spitz thought,” Mr. Whitehead writes. This time, the shtick is “ichor and clots of grue.”

Mr. Whitehead cleaves to the grooves of his genre. “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same,” he writes. “They came, we died, I started running.” A zombie plague has scourged the globe. The American survivors, an unlikely gang, have regrouped in Buffalo, the latest in a series of ersatz strongholds. (“Buffalo is the new Cleveland.”) But the postapocalypse is looking up. “Buzzwords had returned, and what greater proof of the rejuvenation of the world.” Plucky Americans are growing corn again, and safety zones swell statewide. The army has reclaimed the island of Manhattan up to Canal Street, where they have built a wall. “The symbolism. If you can bring back New York City, you can bring back the world,” says one stock character, the dissipated, avuncular skeptic—“The Lieutenant.” Now non-military like Mark Spitz scour the untenanted hulks of Tribeca, exploding the lingering zombies with Buffalo’s guns. “Already gentrification had resumed.”

The danger of dual-level writing is that the reader will start to tire of the feats of tie-in cleverness that sustain it. We encounter a cadaver with “a unique, lumpy texture that reminded Mark Spitz of the old things lurking in takeout;” through the phantasmagoria of the gross-out, the familiarity of “takeout.” When zombies chomp down, they remove “baseballs of meat.” As Mr. Whitehead writes, “Mark Spitz encountered parables, as usual, in the evidence left behind.” The parables flow both ways. When Mark Spitz looks across the Hudson, he sees “rotten teeth in a monstrous jaw” —the piers of New Jersey. He recalls “those other immigrants who had come to the harbor, that first fodder.” When we read that “Mark Spitz had a habit of making his girlfriends into things that were less than human. There was always a point, sooner or later, when they crossed a line and became creatures,” we are obliged to utter “the time-honored threat of the impotent consumer: I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

Dead on Arrival: Whitehead Gives Zombies a Shot