Jeremy Barker, the 14-year-old narrator of J.R. Angelella’s debut novel, Zombie, is obsessed with zombie movies. He’s seen essentially every zombie film ever made, and lives by a Zombie Survival Code (“big holla to Jesse Eisenberg”). The book breaks down into 10 sections, each titled after one of Jeremy’s top 10 favorite zombie films. Aside from that organizing principle and the desperate, zeitgeist-y character foundation, Zombie doesn’t make a lot of sense as a title. It isn’t a thematic signifier of Jeremy’s experiences starting out in high school, or indicative of the plot.
At Zombie’s outset, Jeremy is coping with his parents’ divorce and about to start attending a boys’ private Catholic high school in Baltimore. His father, an ex-Marine obsessed with his own masculine dominance, shares Jeremy’s love for zombie movies, but has shady friends and disappears nearly every night with no explanation. Jeremy’s mother is a pill-popper living with a new, religious boyfriend, and his older brother Jackson is a disgusting pig of a ladies’ man, living in squalor and trying to give Jeremy sexual advice, when he isn’t bragging about naming his penis.
In spite of the high-school setting, Zombie isn’t a young-adult book—the motor-mouthed expletives in Jeremy’s narration give him more in common with the hellish narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned than a more sensible coming-of-age story. It’s hard to read Jeremy’s thoughts without seeing the much older writer behind them unsubtly inserting adult language and themes in order to seem edgier.
Amid all the drama of high-school beginnings and post-divorce family dysfunction, Jeremy struggles to unearth the mystery behind his father’s nightly disappearances. It has something to do with his English teacher—a man with only eight fingers—and a videotape of a disturbing surgical ritual that Jeremy discovers in his father’s office. None of that resonates with Jeremy’s zombie obsession, which is simply the lens he uses to make sense of his world.
Zombie really isn’t a zombie story at all; it’s an underground cult conspiracy grafted onto an awkward bildungsroman that flails in several directions without grasping any of them. Jeremy makes friends with a black photographer and a closeted soccer goalie, flirts with an older student from the all-girls school close by, and stands up to a bully at a school dance. Throughout every embarrassing turn, he constantly references his favorite films, seven of which were made in the last decade, making him an expert on zombies after their popular resurgence instead of as a well-established genre.
When the action picks up in the third act, as Jeremy stops taking his pills and digs deeper into his father’s mysterious disappearances, that frustrating artifice starts to peel away. Jeremy no longer swears a mile a minute, his fumbling romance begins to feel sweet to just the right degree, and insane implausibility gives way to real tension. But that dramatic rise over the final hundred pages is too little, too late. Angelella sticks the landing, but the rest of the routine is a chaotic mess.