InReview: Colson Whitehead’s ZONE ONE

Normally I don’t go for zombie fiction. I have to admit; I was a little hesitant about picking up Zone One by Colin Whitehead. At least it isn’t vampire fiction, right? I f*#%ckin’ hate vampires.

Of course, I do go for post-apocalyptic fiction. Zone One definitely had my interest in that respect. I don’t know what it is, but post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have a natural ability to provide insights into human nature and how to live in the pre-apocalyptic world. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it just has something to do with putting human beings in extreme situations to magnify aspects of their character and how those aspects change when pressured.

But, getting back to zombies, Zone One is definitely zombie fiction. We have a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious virus has turned much of the population into flesh-craving monsters and the world has fallen apart. Those that remain try to destroy all the zombies and return things to the way they were. The big plan? New York. Barriers have been places to seal off the city. Once the area within the barrier is secure, the barriers will be extended and the process repeated for another round.

Mark Spitz (a nickname, real names apparently not of much use anymore) is part of a low-priority crew who kill the straggler zombies that remain within the barrier:

Mark Spitz and the rest of Omega Unit were half done with 135 Duane Street, chugging down from the roof at a productive clip. All clear so far. Only a few signs of mayhem in the building. A ransacked petty cash drawer on eighteen, half-eaten takeout rotting on scattered desks: superannuated currency and the final lunches. As in most businesses they swept, the offices had shut their doors before things had completely deteriorated.


The door was not the issue. After all this time in the Zone, he knew the right place to slam these keypad doors so that they popped open, presto. The mistake lay in succumbing to the prevailing delusions. Giving in to that pandemic of pheenie optimism that was inescapable nowadays and made it hard to breathe, a contagion in its own right. They were on him in an instant.

But, the book isn’t just action centering on zombies and killing. To the contrary, the real focus seems to be on the people–how they attempt to deal mentally with the situation and the various ways in which they fail:

They each saw something different as they dropped the creatures. Mark Spitz knew Gary’s appraisal of the dead. They were the proper citizens who had stymied and condemned him and his brothers all his life, excluding them from the festivities–the homeroom teachers and assistant principals, the neighbors across the street who called the cops to bitch about the noise and the trash in their yard. Where were their rules now, their judgments, condescending smiles? Gary rid the squares of their heads with gusto, perforated them redundantly to emphasize his contempt.

To Kaitlyn, this scourge came from a different population. She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt…Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary’s dead without differentiation.


To Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as me might on a subway car, the fantastic metropolitan array…This was the plane where Mark Spitz lived. They were all him. Middling talents who got by, barnacles on humanity’s hull, survivors who had not yet been extinguished. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Perhaps he would live until he chose not to. Mark Spitz aimed at the place where the spine met the cranium. They fell without a sound. He’d had practice.

After all, much has changed, but much has stayed the same. Mark Spitz and his crew, if the operation is a success, will not live in the reclaimed New York. That will belong to the rich and the powerful that remain. Of course, all that presumes that the operation will work. Failure to fully grasp the inevitable by faith in delusion is also is a very human trait.

But, pulling back from the retention of class society in the post-apocalyptic world and any possible eventual outcome, I reiterate that the focus of the book is on how the human characters react and live within their zombie world. That is what made Zone One interesting for me, being more interested in the literature part than the zombie part.

Really, Zone One is a very literate approach to zombies. In understand that there is probably some good literature out there in the mass of zombie slashers, but I just don’t know enough about zombie fiction to know which. However, I have read Zone One. I definitely found it to be good reading.


David Atkinson David Atkinson

David S. Atkinson is the author of "Bones Buried in the Dirt" (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K) and "The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes" (EAB Publishing). His writing appears in "Bartleby Snopes," "Grey Sparrow Journal," "Interrobang?! Magazine," "Atticus Review," and others. His website is and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

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