Sunday, August 30, 2009


Meet Andy Warner, a recently deceased everyman and newly minted zombie. Resented by his parents, abandoned by his friends, and reviled by a society that no longer considers him human, Andy is having a bit of trouble adjusting to his new existence. But all that changes when he goes to an Undead Anonymous meeting and finds kindred souls in Rita, an impossibly sexy recent suicide with a taste for the formaldehyde in cosmetic products, and Jerry, a twenty-one-year-old car crash victim with an exposed brain and a penchant for Renaissance pornography. When the group meets a rogue zombie who teaches them the joys of human flesh, things start to get messy, and Andy embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will take him from his casket, to the SPCA, to a media-driven class-action lawsuit on behalf of the rights of zombies everywhere.

Breathers is a contemporary dark comedy about life, or undeath, through the eyes of an ordinary zombie. It’s a classic story of suffering and redemption, like The Color Purple or the New Testament. Only with cannibalism.

There was something about Breathers that didn't jibe with me.

Breathers is the kind of story I have an almost Pavlovian response to. It's set in Northern California and it deals with a social class that's marginalized and subject to assault, the main characters are all members of a feel-good support group, and the villains are a bunch of dude-bros from a Santa Cruz fraternity. Oh, and the dispossessed group in question are a group of flesh-eating zombies. What's not to like?

I like author S.G. Browne's writing style. He's punchy and energetic and I like his conversational writing style, though his wit tends to lie in the fetid waters of the sarcastic. I found that I enjoyed reading Breathers quite a bit but there were a lot of nagging details in the book that I couldn't quite shake, chief among which being that the vicious suppression of the zombie population is pretty justifiable.

The zombies in Breathers are fully sentient flesh eaters. Consuming human beings brings back the dead's heartbeats, heals their injuries, and even allows them to get pregnant. Given that the narrator himself is pretty callow about murdering and consuming his own parents, I'm not particularly swayed by the notion that murderous ghouls deserve the same rights and respect that everyone else does.

That's kind of the heart of my complaints with Breathers: for a story about repression and restraint it takes a fairly shallow look at it's characters and their lives. There are a lot of cool touches and interesting concepts, but they never get fully explored. The book feels fragmented, as if the author wrote chapters around notions that struck his fancy only to abandon them when something new caught his attention. I wanted to see more strife, more internal conflict with the morality of their new needs. given that the characters are essentially the same people they were before death, it seems unlikely they'd take to cannibalism so naturally.

I didn't much like Andy Warner. Yeah, the circumstances of his unlife were horrible but he was caustic, unpleasant, negative, and had a wide sense of entitlement. I didn't buy how Rita fell for him without any difficulty or tension. For such an aggressive and sexual character, I didn't quite see what she saw in Andy.

I also think the author missed an opportunity by not utilizing the character of Roy, the amoral zombie who first leads the protagonists to the pleasures of human flesh. He's an interesting character. He's confident, self-possessed, and willful, very different from the beaten-down Uncle Tom zombies that shamble through the storyline. He leads the characters out of their repression, but he never really addresses or challenges the other zombie's old points of view. He just feeds them some human jerky and then gets captured.

Also, you know who I felt genuinely sorry for? Andy's mom. I guess we're supposed to see her as some in-denial suburban parody, a more neurotic counterpoint to the dad's more overt prejudice. But I couldn't help imagining myself in this poor woman's position. Her husband's an ass and her son is a rotting, shambling freak. It's clear she's doing her best, and her reward is to be scorned and eaten by her asshole zombie son.

Finally, the ending of the story feels rushed. Andy gets captured toward the end of the novel and becomes almost immediately a spokesmen for the zombie rights movement. He's catapulted into unlikely heights of celebrity. It happens too fast, it's too unlikely, and a perfunctory search into the missing persons reports of the Santa Cruz area would have derailed his climb to the stars immediately.

I'm probably overthinking it. It's a black comedy, after all. There's a lot of funny bits in the story, especially in the bickering between the members of the zombie self-help group. In the end, I think there's good stuff here. I think S.G. Browne has a lot of potential, and I'm definitely gonna pick up his next book. When all is said and done the book is worth reading. The zombie haikus alone are worth the price of admission.

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