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a review of Colson Whitehead’s excellent “Zone One” I never got published

I just realized that Oklahoma Gazette never had the need to publish this when I worked there. That’s too bad because I really loved this book and am pretty proud of this particular review — I worked hard on it!

Discounting 1999’s “The Intuitionist,” which is set amid a nameless metropolis ostensibly parallel to New York City, Colson Whitehead waited until his fifth novel to lay his hometown out as setting. There’s nothing especially peculiar about that, at least until you realize that the Manhattan of the literary author’s recently published “Zone One,” is a couple of years post-apocalypse, and now home to hungry militants and the much-hungrier zombies they’re struggling to expunge from the city.

While the knee-jerk critic may accuse Whitehead of exploring conflicted feelings with his home or youth, or discuss the conflict literary heavyweights (he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002) encounter when invading genre-fiction territory, the really worthwhile discussion here concerns Whitehead’s depiction of the Big Apple, and how it helps push George A. Romero’s arguments about consumerism into the new media age.

“Zone One” follows three days in the life of a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, an extraordinarily average man (“You’ll be perfect,” a friend with a job offer tells him in one of many flashbacks. “It doesn’t require any skills.”) whose team combs through Manhattan, terminating stragglers that the military left behind on its initial, bloody reclamation of the island. Here Whitehead introduces new terminology in zombie lore, dividing the undead into skels — the classic hostiles — and the aforementioned stragglers, who revert to a catatonic state, often performing some action or returning to a place that was significant in their previous life. Mark Spitz and his partners poke fun at the reanimated flesh as they operate a copy machine or stand scarecrow-like in an empty field.

While Mark Spitz and his comrades are never explicitly described, Whitehead tells us his story, which is inextricably bound with the Manhattan of the character’s youth. He realizes that the stoic, gore-spattered city is as indifferent in and unchanged by the apocalypse as its ghoulish inhabitants are non-discriminatory. “The city did not care for your story … your blood fell instantly or your blood held out longer, but your blood always failed in the end.”

With lofty language and distinct imagery Whitehead satirizes a corporatized American culture that persists in the form of wobbly sponsorships and patriotic slogans (“We Make Tomorrow!”) and nomenclature (“The American Phoenix”). While certain passages of his prose may seem overwrought (and only occasionally pretentious), he has the good David Foster Wallace-sense to toss a sanguine beheading or crude joke every so often into the mix, as he maneuvers easily around the rote and familiar.

By the book’s horrifying, cliffhanger end, you almost wish such an apocalypse really would occur. Whitehead describes the end-all as a “comeuppance for a flatlined culture,” its survivors nearly exhausted of hope. “Zone One” is certainly not for the faint of heart or vocabulary.

About to start earnin’ that scrilla.