Zone One

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October 11, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Colson Whitehead’s literary take on a zombie apocalypse, the afflicted ex-humans break down into two categories. Most of the monsters are regular old flesh chompers, ripping fist-size holes in their victims’ necks while spreading the infection that has wiped out much of the world’s human population. But a small percentage — stragglers, in the book’s parlance — are something else: lost souls who find their way to some cherished past activity and freeze, stuck in time until teams of human-survivor ”sweepers” discover them and blast their craniums to vapor. It’s a testament to Whitehead’s talent that the mostly harmless stragglers are more unsettling than the flesh-munching skels. Zone One is not the work of a serious novelist slumming it with some genre-novel cash-in, but rather a lovely piece of writing that happens to be about hordes of homicidal undead.

It’s about more than that, of course. The book — which follows a survivor as he roams lower Manhattan with a team of zombie hunters — plays off the jitters of our post-9/11, post-Katrina, pandemic-panic era. Whitehead picks at our nervousness about order’s thin grip, suggesting just how flimsy the societal walls are that make possible our hopes and dreams and overly complicated coffee orders. Pretty scary. A-

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