Sunday, January 8, 2012

Joe McKinney, Dead City (2006)

McKinney, Joe, Dead City, Pinnacle Books (Kensington Publishing), November 2006 (below, right)
___________, Dead City, Pinnacle Books (Kensington Publishing), October 2010 (further down, left)

Rating: 6/10
Joe McKinney at Goodreads.

Well in advance of the no longer recent zombie rage I was hooked on the celluloid dead, but only recently have I ventured into the world of zombies in print. The walking dead is a great concept, adaptable to a variety of socialist agendas, everything from consumerism and environmentalism to the facets of expanding urbanism, while being outrageously violent, vile, and often exciting. My foray into print zombies has been a little lukewarm, my initial excitement walled up by disappointment. John Joseph Adams's anthology The Living Dead proved to be a mixed bundle, the scale unfortunately tipping toward the negative side (with a few strong stories, though, including Dan Simmons's notable "Last Year's Class Picture"); Brian Keene's The Rising is now notable only for being among the worst books I've ever read (see my review at Goodreads); J.L. Bourne's Day by Day Armageddon was entertaining, but nonetheless average due to its flat tone and the fact that the narrator refuses to give his allies their own voice. With zombie literature I was hoping for some fine satire, social criticism and dark perspectives on the instinctive nature of human behaviour. Clearly I was hoping for too much.

Recommended some time ago on a couple of discussion boards, Joe McKinney's Dead City was a good balance between trashy zombie novel and social criticism. The novel is the first part of a series titled Dead World, and was followed in 2010 by Apocalypse of the Dead (Pinnacle Books).

Nothing earth-shattering, McKinney nonetheless manages to fuse his book with violent urban zombie adventure and a few scattered comments on the decline of modern society. There were elements I liked and elements I liked less, but I appreciate his attempt to cover so many elements common to zombie fiction. Besides the violent action and social touches, we are given a narrow geographical setting, philosophical brooding, scientific speculation, episodic scenarios, varied characters of varying race and gender, character tensions, dialogue, family drama, a range of arsenal, slow deaths and quick deaths, and slow zombies and quick moving zombies. (I wonder if he followed a checklist while plotting the text.) Surprisingly the end result is not a mess, and though my reading slowed up somewhere around page one hundred, it soon picked up again and I genuinely enjoyed the read. Moreover, on top of everything we are even given closure (which I assume opens up again in the wake of its sequel).

My preferred elements included the focus on police procedure, and the personal character elements which heightened the overall drama. McKinney was once a police officer and is clearly comfortable writing from the point of view of a young cop trying to survive a zombie uprising. The knowledge of everything from weapons, police vehicles and police procedure make the read interesting and somewhat educational. In fact, protagonist and narrator Eddie Hudson is believable as both cop and brand new father. The attention to Hudson's concern for wife and son are not at all sappy, but are rather welcome in the midst of zombie gore. What makes Dead City a good read is that despite including so many elements, nothing is really overdone (except for maybe the death of a certain cop early on). In fact, I would have been happy to read less action and more character-driven narrative. Yes, even in a zombie novel.

I couldn't quite buy much of the scientific speculation, shared primarily through high school science teacher and all-around nerd and jackass Ken Stoler. I cannot believe that the zombie virus places its infected in an animated stated while keeping host body alive, especially since so many were shot to pieces and continued walking. Blood loss alone would have killed the human, let alone having organs blown away. Even the advanced decaying process described would kill the infected through so many other means that the "dead" would never manage to walk.

"I have the terrible feeling that what we're seeing out there is the failure of our community, that all of that death is simply the manifestation of our lack of place, a sense of who we are and what we mean to each other." McKinney's philosophic treaty is broad and a little general (and it should read "one another"), but I appreciate his attempt at placing the epidemic in some kind of social context. Some additional ideas from other characters would've been welcome. Hopefully we get more of this in the second book.

A few things I would have done without. The early references to zombie movies mar the suspension of disbelief as they place the story in a fictional context. Moreover, if the characters are familiar with the dead of Romero and others, they would immediately shoot at the zombie heads rather than their chests. Anyone familiar with the genre would instinctively go for the head shot.

SPOILER ALERT. There are some missed character opportunities, particularly with Channel 9 reporter Sandy Navarro. There is a three-way tension built into the story when the sexy reporter appears, and I was getting psyched up for some character tension amid the urban chaos, yet it doesn't go anywhere, and when the three drive off from their meeting, Sandy becomes a non-character (as though leaving the church turns her into a zombie), and she sits quietly in the back seat until she's devoured. Literally.

While the first person narration is surprisingly good, with consistent and fluid sentences, the dialogue is at times weak, particularly with the bantering between cops Hudson and Marcus. The humour also doesn't work as it feels forced.

Finally, the occasional typos and grammatical errors were irritating. Copy editors should learn the proper use of lay and lie.

The good outweighs the bad and at some point, when the mood grips me, I'll likely pick up its sequel.

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