BOOK REVIEW: The Return Man

I’ve never been what you might call a zombie man; never spent hours in front of tv sets with buddies watching crackly old vhs copies of Dawn of the Dead or what have you.  I’ve definitely enjoyed what I’ve seen of The Walking Dead, but until I read The Return Man I didn’t really get the appeal of endless hordes of shambling corpses.

Thankfully V.M.Zito is a zombie man, through and through, and here he has managed to not only distill the essence of this horror sub-genre, but to extrapolate from and expand upon it in unexpected and interesting ways.  The fact that it’s bowel-looseningly tense, emotionally touching and cinematically paced doesn’t hurt the reading experience either.

Not read it?  Here’s a free chapter.  Keep reading for my full review of the book:

In the near future an outbreak has occurred in the USA.  The dead are restless and spreading like wildfire.  A desperate neo-conservative government has partitioned North America into the Safe and the Evacuated States, abandoning millions to their fate in order to buy time to develop some sort of defence against this plague.  Henry Marco chose to stay, determined to find his wife and return her to peace and humanity with a bullet.  In the years since the outbreak he has learned how to stay alive, to stay a step ahead of the living dead and, from his observations, he has begun to develop theories on how their rotting minds work.

Now he’s offering his services to grieving folk in the Safe States who are unable to move on, ‘Returning’ their loved ones to give them a sense of closure.  It’s not exactly a good life, but it keeps him moving and gives him a link to the rest of humanity.  His growing reputation earns him the attention of some very powerful people; people who have a special mission in mind for him.  It’s a contract that will scrape at his most painful of memories, but one for which he is uniquely qualified to accomplish.  Because he knows the walking corpse.

I was very impressed by how this book begins.  ‘The Roarke Contract’ reads like a short story; setting up the world, the protagonist and the difficulties he faces in a tight little package.  There’s not many tale-spinners that wring a physical reaction from me, but I was crawling out of the chair at several moments here.  I could see straight away I was in the hands of a damned good writer and by the end of the chapter I was gagging for more.  It’s an intense book and the structure works incredibly well.  Each chapter is split into bite-sized segments.  The faint of heart can put it down regularly to calm themselves down, those short of time can get mini-fixes on commutes, tea-breaks or on the bog, whilst late night-readers can tempt themselves into ‘just one more’ morsel as they burn the midnight oil and try to ignore the fact they have work in the morning.

Over all it’s an interesting set up.  Alongside the driving plot, Zito takes time to unpick the zombie threat and make it anew.  Instead of the total anarchy of a pandemic we have a patch of apocalypse held briefly in check, with a world struggling to find a way to stop it.  It gives a glimmer of hope to what is usually an unremittingly bleak scenario.   Furthermore, by raising different considerations as to how people cope with the situation, as well as how the monsters work, he lend the story a real freshness.  Much of what draws us to Marco initially is how he has adapted to life in the Evacuated States: all of the tiny details, the patterns of behaviour that have to be altered, the shifts in morality and priority, whilst trying to remain alive and rational and human.  Having him be (effectively) a contract killer is another great twist on the conventions.

There’s a faint flavour of noir its down-beat hero, a cold-blooded pragmatist in a world of misery, yet stubbornly romantic at his core.  He tries to maintain an emotional detachment, but it’s all about hiding from his pain.  Rather wonderfully for a story that is as much action-flick as brooding commentary on humanity, his ‘cool factor’ is one that has been properly earned and learned from experience, instead of just being a cookie-cutter tough guy.

Brought in as a counterweight to plot and character is Kheng Wu, a Chinese special operative.  He’s an absolute corker to read and has the intriguing role of being both a sympathetic enemy and a troubling friend.  Arguably he has the biggest journey in terms of character arc, yet our glimpses into his psyche are far rarer than Marco’s.  His entrance is explosive and leaves you in no doubt as to the threat he presents to Marco, yet you spend the majority of the story enjoying his presence.  As well as providing a foil for Marco he provides a valuable alternative viewpoint into the Resurrection epidemic, the Realpolitik of the apocalypse and general cultural values regarding life and death.  (Plus, you know, with those curved knives he is cool as fuck.)

The writing itself is very strong.  Whilst largely a fast paced and energetic read, Zito always provides us with spaces to breathe, and these spaces are filled with poetic, fascinating and sombre observations.  The following piece made me reel and long for sequels.

‘The first generation had seen the carnage, had feasted on fresh blood and moist, shivering organs.  But these flies knew none of that.  This is all normal to them, Marco thought.  The only life they’ve known.  Hatched into a land of silent bones.  How long, he wondered, until it’s like that for us?  A generation?  Nobody’ll even remember this planet before The Resurrection.’

It is not a perfect work.  Whilst no individual set piece stretches credulity too far, there does come a point where you start thinking ‘come on now, there’s no way he could get out of that as well.’  Despite the prolific flashbacks I don’t sense that Marco goes through a great deal of character progression within the story itself, though his moments of self-realisation are quietly affecting.  It was a little unclear to me as well whether his personal Returning has ultimately helped him restore his own humanity, or take him a step further away.  Well, ambiguity is no bad thing in small doses.  Certainly there was a general sense of satisfaction and closure at the end, and that is a rare commodity these days.

Whilst overall I found the world a little too bleak for my tastes, this in an outstanding piece of fiction.  If it came from the pen of an established name I would say they were at the top of their game.  For a first time writer, it is nothing short of an astonishing piece of work.  I would heartily recommend it to anyone with a pulse.  V.M. Zito is most definitely a writer to look out for.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
You can follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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