Colson Whitehead, winner of a MacArthur Fel­lowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and a keen observer of the American way of life, has written a story widely iden­tified as a zombie novel. This reader isn’t so sure, even though the undead, with their dis­tasteful choice of food and their unpleasant appearance and odor, are part and parcel of this narrative.

A world-​​wide plague, an event both cat­a­clysmic and apoc­a­lyptic, has occurred and Zone One describes a small area of Man­hattan, walled off and tar­geted for rebirth. Far upstate, a mil­itary and political cadre has bivouacked in Buffalo. From there, the U.S. Marines have been detached to Zone One with orders to seek out and elim­inate the infected, who, although killed by the plague, return in an altered state better known as zombies, or the undead. But strag­glers, a sort of sub­species of the infected, persist and once the Marines have moved out, trained civilian teams are sent in, a macabre mop-​​up crew moving through Zone One, building by sup­posedly empty building.

The novel takes place over a three day period in the company of a member of one of the civilian teams, iron­i­cally nick­named Mark Spitz by his com­rades. Spitz is the ideal sur­vivor as “His aptitude lay in the well-​​executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gath­ering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.” He, like every other unin­fected, has his Last Night story; the retelling of what it was like for him when the plague hit, his loss of family, and his ter­ri­fying escape. Last Night flash­backs move the nar­rative both in time and emotion. Last Nights are some­thing all sur­vivors have in common.

Zone One is a novel of loss and hope, but mostly loss. Spitz dis­plays a youthful and unas­suming courage. His parents  were “holdouts in an age of digital mul­ti­plicity, raking the soil in lonesome areas of resis­tance: a coffee machine that didn’t tell time, dic­tio­naries made out of paper, a camera that only took pic­tures.” He is Whitehead’s everyman, trying to figure out what has hap­pened and not at all sure he will survive.

By the time the wall begins to crumble as hordes of the undead con­tinue to seem­ingly pour into Man­hattan in spite of rede­ployed Marines, the reader may begin to think of the Zone One as some­thing more than zombie pulp fiction. Whitehead has created a world both fright­ening and haunt­ingly familiar. The undead are gath­ering not only in Man­hattan, but in cities across America. Spitz wonders “If the beings they destroyed were their own cre­ations…” And “whatever the next thing was, it would not look like what came before.” Could this post-​​apocalyptic world be the present? Perhaps the undead are already here.

In the stream of the street the dead bobbed in their invisible current. These were the angry dead, the ruthless chaos of exis­tence made flesh.” Spitz must keep moving to survive. It is time to sink or swim. And that’s apt advice for anyone looking for a deeply enter­taining read.

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