When Jimmie Vaughan introduced legendary bluesman BB King at his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tribute concert, he said King was the man all electric blues guitarists want to sound like. While Vaughan’s words are debatable, few would argue that some artists become indexical and unknowingly help create a mold. Sadly, literature often falls into the same replicating game. From James Ellroy’s telegrammatic prose and Jane Eyre’s educated, refined syntax to Hemingway’s bravado and Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, some of literature’s most popular voices constantly fall victim to the sincerest form of flattery.
When artistic lines blur and movies and books collide, things go past imitation and get worse. The zombie genre is the perfect example. Since George A. Romero’s classic zombie trilogy, almost every book dealing with the undead has been a regurgitation of the same elements: brain-craving shamblers, a healthy dose of tension, and a ragtag crew trying to stay alive. Given that bleak panorama, you can understand why I was a tad skeptical when a copy of J.R. Angelella’s Zombie appeared on my doorstep. Wanting to get over my fear quickly, I started reading immediately. Ten pages later, I knew the book was about a lot of things, and none of them were hungry for brains.
Zombie tells the story of Jeremy Barker, a fourteen-year-old boy stuck in the small hell of an all-boys Catholic high school. The typical pressures that come from being in high school are all present, along with bullies, strange teachers, a few weirdoes and the occasional girl. However, what Jeremy has to put up with at home is much worse than anything school throws his way. His mother is an absentee pillhead, his father disappears at night and refuses to give any explanations, and his older brother is a typical sex-addict who cares little for his family. In order to endure all this, Jeremy sticks to a survival code put together from bits and pieces of the zombie movies he loves: Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, Zombieland, and Dawn of the Dead, among others.
Jeremy’s code is put to the test when he discovers a bizarre tape in his father’s closet. The video shows a man strapped to a bed and being prepped for some sort of surgical procedure while surrounded by robed individuals. Suddenly, obsessed with finding out what the tape means and who gave it to his father, Jeremy enters an uncanny and very entertaining maelstrom of secrets, tensions, love, nose bleeds, uncomfortable silences, art, and violence.
The book walks a very fine line between humor and gloominess. It reads like a smart/depressing deconstruction of the quintessential postmodern American family. The narrative is full of strange elements that somehow come together very well. There are echoes of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, very enjoyable stabs at pop culture, and an underlying ode to zombie films. The resulting tome is at once full of energy, wit and a hip cheerfulness, but also packs a lot of terror, angst and solitude.
The best way to explain Zombie is this: try to imagine a comical/disheartening story of a kid with a junkie mother and crazy father written by Rick Moody trying to sound like Chuck Palahniuk discussing ties with Jonathan Safran Foer. If you can picture that, you might understand what reading this book entails. Most importantly, the novel demonstrates that you can use the word zombie, mention some classic films and still put out a unique narrative devoid of clichés. In this regard, Angelella should become a voice upcoming writers look to if they think imitating leads to learning.
Angelella is a talented writer with a fresh voice, and Zombie is a superb debut that deserves to be read. In a literary world where originality is a dangerous bet, you can start counting Angelella among those that didn’t fall victim to the odds.