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Originally published Friday, October 21, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Book review

The living dead take Manhattan in 'Zone One'

A review of Colson Whitehead's novel "Zone One," a harrowing thriller about zombies in New York — and a cheeky commentary on the 'flatlined culture' of modern society.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Colson Whitehead

The author of "Zone One" will appear with Stranger book editor Paul Constant at 7 p.m. Thursday at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle. Music provided by the Curious Mystery. Tickets are $5; for more information contact

Third Place Books (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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'Zone One'

by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 272 pp., $25.95

Coming off the success of 2009's leisurely, autobiographical "Sag Harbor," Colson Whitehead takes a radical turn toward the macabre in his new end-of-the-world zombie thriller "Zone One."

Leave it to the supremely thoughtful and snarkily funny Whitehead ("The Intuitionist," "John Henry Days") to do interesting things with a topic that lately has seated itself in the public's imagination: The living dead.

The streets of New York make up a hellscape in the aftermath of a plague that kills off much of humanity but leaves a core group of survivors — as well as a population of infected victims who exist in a quasi-living state and feast on human flesh.

Government soldiers and citizen volunteers are tasked with hunting down and eliminating these rabid hordes before they overtake what's left of society.

These special teams have orders to clear out a population of man-eating undead from Lower Manhattan, where the military is establishing a plague-free safe area known as Zone One.

The piles of bodies in the city's financial district are "putrefying mounds on the cobblestones of the crooked streets." At the South Street Seaport, the harbor breeze "carted away buckets of stench."

As bad as all that sounds, in "Zone One" we get a tale that is as cheeky as it is bleak.

The authorities, for instance, try to re-brand the crisis. They give the camps housing plague survivors suburban-chic names like "Bubbling Brooks" and "Happy Acres," despite the fact that the camps are sealed off by barbed-wire and electric fencing. They also commission commemorative hoodies and visors for camp residents to wear.

The hero of the novel, who goes by the name Mark Spitz, is one of the civilian zombie sweepers, and the novel is partly a character study of him.

Unlike the legendary Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, one of the greatest overachievers in sports history, this Mark Spitz is an underachiever, "never shining, never flunking" in life. His work in this grim Gotham seems to give him purpose. He kills with surgical efficiency.

Sometimes, though, he'll see in the largely vacant gazes of the zombies hints of their past selves, or resemblances to people he once knew.

But all seems lost.

Spitz shudders while watching the relentless undead stream through the streets "like characters on an electric ticker in Times Square," an oozing tide of destruction.

Like many of his boozed-up peers, he has started showing the telltale symptoms of PASD, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Whitehead, himself a New Yorker, writes about Spitz's travails in that brooding, vertical metropolis with a dark poetry, which makes this harrowing tale not just a juicy experiment in genre fiction but a brilliantly disguised meditation on a "flatlined culture" in need of its own rejuvenating psychic jolt.

Tyrone Beason: tbeason@seattletimes.com

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