The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume One: At the Edge of Empire

Here at EW, we’ve been waiting with baited breath for any word about the sequel to one of our Top 10 Books of 2015 —Daniel Kraus’s The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire — which follows a resurrected, 19th century Chicago gangster doomed to walk the earth until he finds out why, after he was murdered at 17, he rose from the dead.

Finally, we can exhale: We’re thrilled to present not only the stunning cover for The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 2: Empire Decayed, but also an excerpt (in which Zebulon settles in… the suburbs?) to tide readers over until the book finally hits shelves later this year. Check them both out below:


Excerpt from The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume Two: Empire Decayed by Daniel Kraus

Like flowers from soil popped rows of prefabricated clapboard houses, each snapped together in budget forgeries of Colonial styles. Each abode came standard with a sentinel mailbox, hugging shrubbery, enclosed garage, pitched roof, and picture window, through which were glimpsed scenes of such domiciliary bliss that the dormant criminal in me ticked with an urge to smash. It was only each house’s bright enamel finish that suggested individuality: sandstone orange, sage green, turquoise blue, lemon yellow.

The taxi crested the gentlest rise (let us remember that Heavenly Hills, despite its name, was located in Kansas), and I saw, beyond uncountable mazy cul-de-sacs, a cavalry of construction vehicles mauling farmland to prepare for future development waves. The American family had become the crop, and the black blood and iron ash of Hiroshima served as fertilizer.

But no matter! The April day was cloudless enough that sunlight dumped straight down, squashing all shadow. I felt a pinch in my cheeks. Was it a smile? Indeed, indeed! And I knew whence it came, for here in this sun-drenched land of wobbling lawn sprinklers, each one painting a rainbow across pollen-speckled air, there was nowhere at all for the Millennialist to skulk.

The sprinklers, I am obligated to mention, also hissed like snakes.

On Mulberry Terrace, we stopped before a rectilinear domicile like any other except painted a sinister cherry pink. I clung to the seat—was any color more threatening? After a solid minute of paralysis the driver cleared his throat and I handed over the cash. He was careful not to touch my hand when he took it.

He drove away, going twice as fast now, stranding me on the curb. In his wake, birds chirped. Radio soap operas blabbered. Somewhere, a baby laughed. This was no Nazi Germany, but I felt almost as lost inside it. I steeled myself, gripped my bulky suitcase (a prop, containing almost nothing), and headed up the driveway, sidewalk, and front steps. The pinkness disoriented me, but there was a railing to grip. I prepared my knuckles for knocking before spying beside the door a big silver button. It looked as if it ought to be pushed, so I, never one to resist temptation, pushed it, half expecting a retaliatory spray of pink paint. Instead, four chimes rang inside the house: the Westminster Quarters, familiar from my youthful churchgoings. Hold on—were the suburbs theistic enclaves? I took a step back, scanned for the taxi, considered running.

The door flew wide.

Mrs. Shirley White was younger than anticipated. She was twenty-six, pretty but stern-chinned, with natural orange hair set in a permanent-wave pin-curl cut that nuzzled into her shoulders. It was in moderate disarray; a lock had caught in the string of pearls tight around her neck. She wore a periwinkle polka-dot dress, though I could not say if it flattered her figure because of a shin-length yellow apron. She wiped her hands on it, streaking flour. Her eyes bounced away from me after only a second.

She’d been warned about my appearance.

“Mr. Gray, is it?”

Was that the name I’d chosen? All this color, I couldn’t think. Yes, that’s right, Mr. Joe Gray, for I’d been afraid that my hostess might recall the name “Zebulon Finch” from the photo spreads with Bridey Valentine in the 1940s. Alas, Mrs. White wasn’t old enough to have been a Photoplay subscriber, and now I was stuck with the unbecoming alias.

“Joe Gray,” confirmed I. “How do you do.”

She did not extend her hand for shaking. Her eyes skittered down the lane, as if concerned we might be spotted.

“Come in, sit down. Can I get you a cup of Nescafé?”

My response of what, exactly, the hell was Nescafé was lost, as was the sound of the door closing behind me, for the room I’d entered was not a room at all, but an electric-pink womb. I shielded my eyes, staggered, found a chair, collapsed into it. This was . . . a kitchen? But constructed in what kind of delirium? The checkerboard floors were pink. The curtains were pink. The refrigerator was pink. Dearest Reader, are you hearing me? The refrigerator was pink. And larger than von Lüth, a hulking, huffing turbine that, when Mrs. White opened it to retrieve a carafe of milk, revealed a robin-egg musculature of shelving, wild entanglements of golden bars and trays, hinged doors, and sliding drawers. Soda bottles jingled and plastic-wrapped jellies quivered.

Mrs. White placed the milk on the pink countertop, filled a pink percolator from the stainless steel sink faucet, and plugged it into a wall of pink lacquer finish. A half-eaten piece of cake was on the counter; she took it, dumped it into the sink, and flipped a switch. The sink roared to hellish life with the snicking whirlwind of a thousand sharp teeth. I jumped—a Communist booby trap here in Midwestern suburbia!—but Mrs. White thought nothing of it, retrieving two mugs from a pink cabinet, leaning an aproned hip against the gleaming stove, and lighting a cigarette.

I detected a scent. A strange one, pleasant even, but after the loamy bouquets of the mountains and the oil-stink of the Streamliner train, it was too exotic to identify.

Mrs. White’s cig winked red.

“I don’t know how much they told you,” said she.

“Only that you have an available room.”

“A room for rent. Nothing personal, but this isn’t a charity situation.”

“Of course.” I indicated the suitcase. “I am able to pay.”

“That’s fine. But I want to be up front with you, Mr. Gray. I have some—well, hesitations. My Charles was a soldier too, and when I heard about this program, helping injured soldiers rejoin communities and all that, I knew that’s what Charles would have wanted, and I do need the extra money. But you’re a single man. I can’t have any trouble here. I have two children, you know. They barely understand what happened to their father. It’s been less than a year.”

Through a merlon of expelled smoke, she dared a longer look. By the time the percolator gurgled and its red light mirrored the tip of the cigarette, Mrs. White had moderated the grind of her jaw. I believed that she felt relief. I was, to be blunt, disfigured, and therefore my presence was unlikely to be construed by neighbors as untoward. She prepared the Nescafé, centered our cups upon pink saucers, and joined me at the pink breakfast-nook table. I lifted my cup and considered the anemic beige bilge.

“What did happen to Mr. White, if I may ask?”

She snugged her cig between her knuckles and with the same hand brought her cup to red-painted lips. Smoke and steam braided.


It was apparent that no further details were in the offing, and for that I was grateful. Mrs. White had been told that my own war had been Korea, not World War I, and the fewer specifics offered about either conflict, the better off I’d be.

“So what it is you do, Mr. Gray?”

I’d had half the country to concoct a clever cover.

“I am a writer,” proclaimed I.

She ashed, squinted, studied.

“Are you one of those men who writes about war? What it means and all that?”

I’d studied the book racks each time I stopped for a twenty-cent tank of gasoline. Men called Hemingway, Jones, Mailer, Salinger, Uris, and Vidal had made combat experience a prerequisite for crafting the Great American Novel; it was reasonable to believe that Korea vets like myself would follow their lead. Of course I’d read not a single published line from these literary lions. My familiarity with modern lit began and ended with Jason Stavros, the poet-soldier who’d survived trench warfare in hopes of doing exactly what Mrs. White had cavalierly dismissed.

“You have it exactly right,” said I. “War. What it means. All that.”

I set down the coffee cup with finality.

“Careful,” snapped she. “You’ll dent the Formica.”

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume One: At the Edge of Empire
2015 book
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