Book Review: Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, S.G. Browne (2009)

January 9th, 2015 2:19 pm by Kelly Garbato

Zombies Are People Too!

four out of five stars

“The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”
― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

“Is it necrophilia if we’re both dead?”

Andy Warner reanimated three months ago, but so far his “second chance” at life has him wishing that his DNA had just let him RIP. His wife Rachel is dead, killed in the same car accident that claimed Andy’s life. Since the undead have no rights to speak of, custody of his daughter Annie was handed over to Rachel’s sister and her husband; Andy can’t even stalk her on Facebook, since zombies are prohibited from using the Internet. Forced to move back in with the ‘rents after rising from the dead, Andy spends his days chugging wine and watching reruns in their wine cellar. His mother is physically repulsed by him, and his father – never the warm and cuddly type – openly loathes him.

Andy’s only respite is the local chapter of Undead Anonymous (UA). There’s Rita, the sexy suicide/formaldehyde fetishist Andy’s falling for; Jerry, a fellow vehicular casualty who delights in showing off his exposed brain; Naomi, the biracial, chain-smoking zombie whose empty eye socket makes a convenient ashtray; kind-hearted Tom, mauled to death by dogs; and surly sourpuss Carl, who was knifed to death. Led by Helen – a counselor in her first life – the members of the group attempt to navigate a hostile world, where even the slightest misstep could land them in the pound. Even though the vast majority of zombies don’t consume human flesh, they are nonetheless feared and reviled by Breathers.

Andy and his adopted family are content to toe the line – that is, until fellow group member Walter is attacked and dismembered by a group of men, thus igniting an act of civil disobedience. And when Tom loses an arm to a fraternity pledge prank, Andy and Company do the one thing they’re never supposed to do: take revenge on the living. The Santa Cruz zombies are getting restless. But is their activism due to a newfound sense of purpose in life – or the “venison” given to them by a free-living zombie named Ray? (Spoiler alert: the jarred meat is Breather!)

Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament is a darkly funny and sometimes poignant read. I especially love the little details: Andy’s constant refrain of “if you’ve never….then you wouldn’t understand.” (“If you’ve never seen someone get his arm torn out of his socket by a gang of drunk college fraternity boys who slapped him in the face with his own hand, then you probably wouldn’t understand.”) Andy’s adorably morbid haikus (“lips colored crimson / dead flesh like alabaster / my lifeless heart pounds”). The gruesome mother-son bonding moments between Andy and his mom. Helen’s comically optimistic mantras (still better than Ted the psychiatrist).

Animal people might also enjoy the parallels drawn between the treatment of nonhuman animals and zombies, which are many and begin at the moment of a zombie’s reanimation. New zombies are captured by Animal Control and taken to the SPCA, where their families are given a week to claim them. Those unlucky enough to reanimate while not carrying a valid form of ID are held for three days before being turned over to the county. Unwanted or troublesome zombies can meet any one of a myriad of horrific fates: they may be salvaged for spare parts. Used in medical experiments. Made into crash test dummies. Chained up on forensic research facilities and left to rot. Still others might be sent to zombie zoos or cast on zombie reality shows. Much like nonhuman animals, human cruelty towards zombies knows no bounds.

All zombies are required to register with the County Department of Resurrection, where they’re issued ID tags, just like companion dogs and cats. Zombies are prohibited from harming (or even inconveniencing) Breathers, even in self-defense. Much like “dangerous” animals, dangerous zombies are earmarked for destruction. Zombie attacks are granted excessive media coverage (think “Shark Week”), while acts of zombie kindness (or even normalcy) go ignored.

In fact, the only humans who treat zombies with some modicum of respect, Andy notes, are the SPCA employees. In an attempt to save unwanted zombies from being tortured or destroyed, the local SPCA has even initiated a companion zombie program and attempted to find foster homes for those zombies who don’t have a human guardian to claim them.

Particularly touching is the passage in which Andy – issued a rare invite upstairs, to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at the table, in the company of the living – begins to relate to the animal on his plate:

So I keep quiet and eat my dinner and look around the table, at my disappointed mother and my brooding father, at all of the food and splendor of this silent, oppressive Thanksgiving feast, until my gaze falls on the turkey with its blistered skin and its vanishing flesh. The more I stare at it, the more I realize that I can relate to it, empathize with it, and it strikes me how much we have in common. True, it’s dead and cooked and partially devoured, but is that so different from me?

As it’s slowly consumed, the bones appear bit by bit, the cartilage and ribs revealing themselves as meat is stripped from the skeleton. Eventually, it will be nothing but a carcass. And I wonder: am I being destroyed by Breathers? […]

The longer I stare at the turkey, the more I begin to feel a sort of kinship with it. The more I see it as a metaphor of my current existence. The more I begin to understand why Tom would want to become a vegetarian.

Andy’s contemplations give way to a hilarious scene that ends in a father-son tug-of-war over the dismembered bird.

Still, it’d be a stretch to call Breathers vegan-friendly; even though it’s completely unnecessary, Andy and his friends continue to consume animal meat out of habit. Tom the “vegetarian” eats fishes (but at least Jerry calls him out on it). And of course by story’s end, the “neo-Breathers” are consuming human flesh by the bucketful.

Overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament; comparisons to Max Brooks aren’t off the mark. I can’t wait to pick up the sequel, I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus (though part of me wants to save it for next December, to get me in the holiday spirit. Nothing says “Christmas” quite like zombies.)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Naomi, one of the Undead Anonymous zombies, is biracial (black and Japanese). Of the three women in the group, two are victims of domestic violence: Naomi was murdered by her husband, and Helen was shot while intervening in a domestic dispute. Naomi’s role is rather minor.

Animal-friendly elements: Browne clearly and consistently draws parallels between the treatment of zombies and nonhuman animals. When Andy finds (and eats) the dismembered parts of his parents in the freezer, he experiences the same disconnect that occurs in modern society when humans consume pre-processed animal products. In one especially touching and humorous scene, Andy expresses empathy for the Thanksgiving turkey (and attempts to abscond to the basement with it, much to his father’s anger). Tom is a “vegetarian” (really a pescetarian). See my review for more.

Seasonal reading tip: Breathers encompasses Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, making it a festive late autumn/early winter read.

 

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