When I started reading it, I was not sure where to place this book. The title suggests horror and zombies (that word alone is currently a sure-fire way of selling books or movies, if ever there was one), but the narrative is much more closely aligned with a classic coming-of-age story, interspersed with movie-geek observations about zombies.
Now, movies are not really my thing – I fall asleep in them, despite my best efforts, and I also fall asleep in discussions about them. In view of this, I did wonder whether I would be able to get into Zombie at all, given that the world view of the main protagonist is largely laid out according to the zombie movie genre. However, as the story went on it did engage me and keep me awake, and it also made me laugh (and cringe) more than once.
The main character, Jeremy Barker, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives his life according to the Zombie Survival Code, a set of rules for surviving zombie infestations which he has distilled from genre movies and adapted to fit his life. Boiled down, the code advises one to avoid eye contact, keep quiet, forget the past, lock and load and fight to survive – a social survival kit which serves Jeremy reasonably well in his unusual domestic situation.
His family is profoundly dysfunctional. His mother Corinne is absent, a drug-user who has taken off with her boyfriend Zeke and left her two sons Jackson and Jeremy with their tie-obsessed, Vietnam vet, realtor father Ballentine, a man who has a Purple Heart and a talent for disappearing. Jackson has also left home in favour of in a flat where he lives in squalor and staggers from one sexual fling to the next, leaving Jeremy alone with his father.
Jeremy is a misfit in his first year at Byron Hall Catholic school for boys, and the author’s depiction of the casual and daily cruelties of school life is highly effective. Jeremy is reflective about his experiences, and perceptive about his own motives and those of others, but he is annoyingly unable to act on his perceptions and make himself less of a target. He befriends oddballs and echoes his father in his rather prissy lectures about the relative merits of different tie knots, but his skilfully written internal monologue elicits both tension and sympathy.
The book is slow to pick up – for the first third of the story very little seems to happen. We learn about Jeremy’s life and family, and we wonder how far and where his preparation for the zombie apocalypse will take him. The sinister mutilated figure of Mr Rembrandt, a teacher at Byron Hall, stalks through Jeremy’s and his father’s lives, creating a real sense of unease that is exacerbated by the disturbing video footage which Jeremy finds in his Dad’s ‘Box of War’.
However, we also learn that Jeremy is hyperexciteable and his parents have him on Ritalin, but he stops taking it which sends him into a spiral of accelerated perceptions and emotions. The narrative drive of the book increases in intensity significantly towards the end, with Jeremy’s hyperactivity reflected in his actions and in his first-person internal monologue.
The author warned me to buckle up for the last thirty pages or so, and I know what he meant; without his controlling drugs Jeremy’s life accelerates rapidly, and at the story’s climax there is genuine horror and fear, culminating in a stomach-churning scene of violence that leaves both Jeremy and his father broken in their different ways.
One criticism of the book is that it has no real sense of conclusion – the bad things happen but the bad people aren’t caught, and after some fallout Jeremy’s life apparently moves forward smoothly, albeit with a new and rather more sinister reputation at Byron Hall. The neat-and-tidy-storyteller in me wanted more resolution – what was going on in that house at the end of the book? Why? The philosophical treatise delivered by the villain as justification for his acts of appalling violence is compelling, but there is little sense that Jeremy challenges it – or even understands it, in a meaningful sense.
In the final analysis, however, the book left me with the overriding notion that weird stuff goes on in people’s lives all the time, but it is rarely correctly interpreted or dealt with by society. We all have unexplained, unexplainable events in our lives, and our privileged view into Jeremy Barker’s head gives us his (biased, hyperactive, teenaged, obsessive) story. The view of others, and of society, regarding the same events will necessarily be different – and maybe all the more horrifying because of that. The book was a compelling read, although it may not appear to be so during the first sections; stick with it, because the end delivers intensity and uncertainty in roughly equal measure.
Zombie is published by Soho Press, and is available in paperback and electronic versions through all the usual outlets.