Way of the Barefoot Zombie
Trade Paperback, 320 pages, $7.99
Review by Sheila Merritt
There is a joke about Sigmund Freud with the punch line: “Sometimes a banana is just a banana.” In recent fiction, zombies appear in mashups with Jane Austen, and are given attributes by authors in novels, that shout: “A zombie is NOT JUST a zombie.” Is there a punch line? Read on.
Zombies as metaphors have become a subgenre in horror fiction and Way of the Barefoot Zombie by Jasper Bark seizes the day (of the dead) and runs with it. The author knows that creating a cultural kinship with the flesh eaters will have bite, and that its appeal is a no brainer. The first third of the book succeeds as scathing satire about wielding power. The story falters, however, when the author suddenly seems to realize that he is supposed to also write a horror novel. Then, there’s much ado about voodoo; combined with soul saving spirituality, and finally a return to a much too heavy allegory about “our culture.”
Benjamin, the book’s protagonist, views zombies as “the ultimate passive-aggressive subversives. They’d given death the middle finger and refused to lie down just because they weren’t alive anymore. It was defiance that kept them up and running. Not hunger, like the idiots all around him thought. The pure defiance of anyone who tells him how to act or what to do. Defiance of the ridiculous hypocrisy of Western consumer culture and everyone who tries to uphold it.” Benjamin infiltrates an island where zombies are used as prototypes for success; they are studied for their unique voracious single mindedness, which is regarded as not only a commendable trait, but a desirable one. He joins the elite billionaires who have paid big bucks to emulate the way of the zombie; removing the baggage of humanity which obstructs gain. Benjamin’s attempts at freeing the oppressed walking dead are the core of the tale. Along the way, various characters, of greater or lesser importance, are introduced and sometimes dispatched.
There are many excellent passages in the book. The CEO of the island enterprise is a necrophile, and his kinky ardor is lovingly detailed: “The blossom of his passion would fade as her flesh began to decompose. By their very nature, his romances were fleeting. At times his heart would be broken. But there was always the obituary page.” It’s a shame that the author couldn’t maintain this wicked wit for over 300 pages, but maybe he should have just shortened the story.
Benjamin becomes a bore when he gets enlightened and philosophical at the novel’s end. He was fun when he was the heroic not-thinking-of-the-ramifications-nerd. But his late in the story spiel about how “we’re devouring the world’s resources and any culture that gets in our way,” is less about the gore of horror, and more about Al Gore. The first third of the book is caustic societal sarcasm; very well done, and worthy of the reference it makes to the movie The Graduate (note Benjamin’s name.) There is a problem, though, in the shift of tone which occurs in the last two thirds of the tale. The zombies are given some personal depth; they aren’t only symbols for persecution, manipulation or gratification. The book then becomes ponderously socially and politically haranguing, and places a sudden disjointed emphasis on metaphysical elements.
So, back to the “a zombie is NOT JUST a zombie” concept: In Way of the Barefoot Zombie, Jasper Bark wants to have his brains and eat them, too. He mortifies his creatures with abuse, labels, and emotional inconsistencies in attitude; uses them as metaphors and allegories. The bottom line, though, is that he also wants them to be the simplistic ravenous cadaverous cannibals that horror fans know and love. His animation of the walking dead does not allow them a consistent motivational trajectory, so they meander all over the place in terms of who they are and what they represent. The author should have decided on and followed one path. It would be a more successful work had Bark settled totally on cynical symbolism, or merely rejected that aspect and said: “Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.”