Zombie is not a horror novel. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. There is no zombie apocalypse to be found in J.R. Angelella’s debut, no undead corpses clogging the streets. But don’t let that stop you from checking out this dark, witty coming-of-age story, written entirely for horror fans. Narrator Jeremy Barker, a 14-year-old attending a Catholic boys’ school, is forced to draw on his expansive knowledge of zombie films when confronting the day-to-day horrors of adolescence. Sound familiar? We horror dorks have been there, one and all, and Angelella captures the puberty pain with cleverness and candor. Zombie seems more melancholy and profane than your usual YA fiction, which is my way of saying that I wish someone had plunked this one into my hands back when I was 14. I loved this book. Soho Press, an indie publisher specializing in literary fiction and crime novels, released Zombie back in June. Read on for the full review.
Even by the normally brutal standards of puberty, Jeremy Barker has got it rough. His mother walked out on the family in the wake of an affair, leaving Jeremy to cope with his brooding, unpredictable father, a Vietnam veteran. Freshman year at Byron Hall Catholic High School for Boys is about to start, forcing Jeremy to contend with sadistic teachers, plaid-clad bullies, and the incredibly hot girls from nearby Prudence High. It’s almost too much for a lowly 14-year-old to handle. Lucky for Jeremy, he abides by an airtight set of Zombie Survival Codes that help him cope with the angst and bullshit. “Avoid Eye Contact”, “Keep Quiet”, and “Forget the Past” are among the survival techniques he’s gleaned from years of watching zombie movies with his dad, their only real form of bonding. At times, these Codes seem to be all that stands between Jeremy and a complete mental breakdown.
Smart, breezy dialogue drives most of the action in Zombie. An observant, judgmental narrator, Jeremy’s voice smacks of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye (or, to namedrop a lesser known character, Flannery Culp from Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight). Jeremy’s verbal interactions with teachers and classmates sparkle with juicy burns and abject humiliation, making Zombie one hell of a fun read. But as the pages fly by, it becomes harder and harder to tell where Angelella’s plot is headed.
Jeremy’s father disappears from the house most nights, refusing to answer Jeremy’s questions regarding his absence. When Jeremy finds a disturbing DVD among his father’s possessions, thy mystery deepens. What, exactly, is his father up to? This remains a question for most of the novel, and the relationship between Jeremy and his father is the heart and soul of Zombie. But Angelella has an obvious affection for his secondary characters, a love he demonstrates by fleshing out even the most minor fringe players. Frequent narrative detours through Jeremy’s social circles may distract from the central plot, but Angelella manages to pull all his shit together with a shocking last-minute twist. While it may not qualify as a horror novel, it’s a story told with the singular voice of a zombie nerd, and in that regard, Zombie nails it perfectly.
4.5 out of 5 Skulls