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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, by S. G. Browne

I realize that my review of anything with the subtitle A Zombie's Lament will be considered suspect, but this is quite a good read. I'll try to keep this as free from substantive spoilers as possible.

The opening scene of Breathers—and I do not say this lightly—rivals the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard. It's quite an opening scene to live up to for better than 300 pages, but Browne pulls it off almost flawlessly. The whole novel is narrated in the first person, present tense, although about 2/3 of it is actually spent catching the reader up to the events in progress in the opening, so again, very much like SB, except our William Holden stand-in is available for another third of a novel. Aces!

Despite the opening nod to SB, Breathers is more Catcher in the Rye than it is Maltese Falcon. (Although Joe Gillis is more Holden Caulfield than Sam Spade,isn't he? Forgive me while I lurch my way out of this metaphor.) Sure, there are noirish elements to Breathers: Andy, our undead narrator, is quite the Everyzombie, and he neither courts nor consciously creates the interesting times in which which he's not living.

Most of the chapters are short, sleek vignettes. They're a series of funny, painful glimpses into a Day in the Life of a Zombie. Through them, Andy's individual story is revealed. There's not a lot of time spent on Browne's zombie mythos, which is fine, as it amounts to "Some people just reanimate, don't really know why. Probably genetic, but anyway, it's been happening for decades, if not centuries."

Browne wisely spends his time fleshing out (oh ho ho! I swear to you, I did not see that one coming until it was typed!) the unlived experience of Zombies, showing the reader how reviled and disempowered a segment of society they are (even in Santa Cruz—I suspect the vampires). He shows us, through Andy and his compatriots in an Undead Anonymous group (the only manifestation of Zombies' First Amendment rights, and these are monitored by a Breather), what human habits die hard and which ones slip away all too easily.

What else can I say? There's romance, fighting, dismemberment, fire, chases, escapes, porn, civil disobedience, disguises, and a self-actualized Zombie named Ray who turns out, strangely, to be a kind of Mary Poppins for Andy and his posse. (Actually, that would be one minor criticism of the book: Ray turns up, takes everyone by the shoulders, nudges them down a particular path, and then meets an ambiguous end off screen, so he's a touch Zombie ex machina.) It's funny—very funny—but like the best Zombie movies it's also social commentary and social commentary done deftly.

Without spoiling anything, I think I can say that the book ends with the Zombie Apocalypse (a very local one, at least) on he horizon, but leaves the door plausibly open for a sequel. And let's face it: If you could reanimate Joe Gillis for one (possibly) last hurrah, wouldn't you?

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