Zone One

By Colson Whitehead

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

A Manhattan-bred, Harvard-educated, MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship-winner (among other honors), Colson Whitehead began his career as a reviewer for the Village Voice and has gone on to write many acclaimed books. Among them are the novels “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Apex Hides the Hurt,” as well as the essay collection “The Colossus of New York.” All share his penchant for original and sometimes disturbing perspectives on familiar subjects, such as black folk hero John Henry, the art of marketing and the power of names and zombies. Colson is black, and race figures prominently and fruitfully in his choice of subjects and point of view.

Wait…did I say zombies? Yes, Whitehead takes on the currently popular horror genre in “Zone One,” but gives it his personal twist, making this book far deeper and thought-provoking than your standard shambling-undead-with-poor-personal-hygiene thriller.

What is this book about?

We seem to be fascinated with the walking dead lately, and perhaps it’s political. Partisans of the right and left see each other as brain-dead armies, lurching dangerously and implacably towards annihilating the rest of us. It’s a trope that will not die.

In “Zone One,” Whitehead posits a world-wide zombie disease, an experimental vaccine that might stop it and the Herculean efforts to clear New York City of its zombie hordes. Set in a three-day period, it tells of a quietly heroic black guy ironically nicknamed “Mark Spitz” (he’s afraid of the water) and his allies, members of the Omega Unit. They’re after “skels,” the really dangerous flesh-eating monsters, and catatonic “stragglers,” who seem stuck in a zombie Groundhog Day, mindlessly repeating such actions as making photocopies in their former and now ruined businesses. (I know what you are thinking: there are stragglers in your office, right now.)

There is plenty of gore and violence and creepy stuff as the civilian units struggle to save the city, but since this is Whitehead, there’s a lot more to think about here.

Why you’ll like it:

Colson employs irony with a master’s hand. His writing and stories are multi-layered, offering readers the fun and challenge of appreciating the tale on the surface as well as the allusions and deeper meanings that lie beneath. Characters in this novel suffer from “Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder,” a brilliant name for their condition….and perhaps ours. This is a book that will make readers laugh, recoil and ponder how we got where we are and where we may be going. Zombies, it seems, aren’t the only ones who have lost their way.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: Far from the solemn affair so often imagined, the apocalypse in Whitehead’s hands is filled with the kind of dark humor one imagines actual survivors adopting in order to stave off madness. The author sometimes lets the set pieces he’s so good at run long, but otherwise succeeds brilliantly with a fresh take on survival, grief, 9/11, AIDS, global warming, nuclear holocaust, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Missouri tornadoes, and the many other disasters both natural and not that keep a stranglehold on our fears and dreams.”

“A zombie story with brains…Readers who wouldn’t ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry…Everything comes to life in this perfectly paced, horrific, 40-page finale shot through with grim comedy and desolate wisdom about the modern age in all its poisonous, contaminating rage. It’s a remarkable episode, but elevated by the power of Whitehead’s prose to the level of those other ash-covered nightmares imagined by T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cormac MacCarthy,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post

“Whitehead writes with economy, texture and punch. He has a talent for sardonic aphorism and an ear for phonetic intrigue…[Zone One] is a cool, thoughtful and, for all its ludic violence, strangely tender novel, a celebration of modernity and a pre-emptive wake for its demise,” says Glen Duncan in The New York Times Book Review.

Booklist’s starred review says: “This diabolically smart, covertly sensitive, ruminative, and witty zombie nightmare prods us to think about how we dehumanize others, how society tramples and consumes individuals, how flimsy our notions of law and order are, and how easily deluded and profoundly vulnerable humankind is. A deft, wily, and unnerving blend of pulse-elevating action and sniper-precise satire.”

When is it available?

It’s now on the shelves at the Hartford Public Library

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