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S. G. Browne
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Roadway Books / Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Trade Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-767-93061-1
Publication Date: 03-03-2009
312 Pages; $14
Date Reviewed: 09-08-2009

Index:  Horror,  Science Fiction  Fantasy  General Literature

Andy Warner's life may have been average; his afterlife is even more so. After plowing into a redwood tree on Highway 17, a deadly strip of asphalt that winds through the hills between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley, he died. And then, alas, came back not to life, but undeath. He's a zombie. It just happened, and having been stripped of life itself, he's subsequently stripped of pretty much everything else. His parents keep him in the wine cellar, where, unknown to them, he's drinking fantastically expensive wine at a rapid pace. He's let out to attend meetings of Undead Anonymous, a support group for zombies. He staggers in, grunts a few times and goes away feeling generally unfulfilled. As bad as this sounds, it's better than the alternatives, like being used for experiments in a death farm. As Andy puts it in 'Breathers,' by S. G. Browne, "If you've never been staked down on the side of a hill and left to rot at a research facility for human decay, you probably wouldn't understand."

If you understand the humor in that quote from the novel, if you like your zombies to have personalities and sort-of lives like the rest of us, only utterly deprived, as it happens of any human rights, because of course, they're no longer human, then 'Breathers' is the book for you. Browne's novel is a delightfully droll take on zombies, a combination of actual romance ("Is it necrophilia if you’re both dead?") and rallying cry for the last trodden-upon minority.

Browne keeps things utterly, totally low-key. He's a master of deadpan humor. The prose in 'Breathers' is really quite powerful, very controlled and quite hilarious, if you like your humor dry. But with his prose he manages to have it both ways. You can laugh at the absurdity of the situation and the things to which Andy and his undead comrades are reduced. But you can also take them, as the authors does, quite seriously. These are, well, not people, obviously, but characters you can care about and like. So long as they don’t happen to live next door.

'Breathers' has a fascinating and rather cunning plot arc. One might well think at first that we're going to spend most of the novel sitting in the Community Room whinging about the problems of undeath, and greeting those problems with a sort of "I'm OK — you're a zombie" philosophy. But once Andy meets Ray, who introduces him to the wonders of venison, matters escalate quickly. Like any resident of Santa Cruz, Andy has a particularly keen sense of social conscience, even though he's dead. He knows when he's being mistreated just because he's a zombie, and he sets out to do something about it. Especially now that he's met the love of his, well, not life, so it must be — death, Rita. She inspires Andy to new heights, and depths.

For a book that seems initially pretty tame, Browne knows how to pull out the stops. Readers who enjoyed Mary Roach's 'Stiff' will happily recognize that Browne has done his research well. You'll find yourself, alarmingly, thinking like Andy. At that point, watch your appetite. 'Breathers' is funny, charming, alarming, and even — surprisingly — violent. But just make sure the next book in your reading queue is not a cookbook.

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