Title: Zombie, Illinois
Plot Type: Political Thriller with Zombies
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
I apologize for being so late in reviewing this novel. I'll be posting a review of Kenemore's third novel, Zombie, Indiana, sometime this week.
Ben Bennington was born in Iowa but has lived for 20 years in Chicago, where he is now a political reporter for Brain's Chicago Business (a kind of corny, zombie-esque spoof of Crain's well-known business magazines that are published specifically for Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York City). Ben knows the ins and outs of Chicago politics and he understands the deep corruption that drives every aspect of Chicago life. Here is Ben's take on Chicago politicians: "Professionally and officially, I am as amused as the next reporter by the rampant corruption that pervades every ward…At press events, I shake hands and mingle with these politicians—these criminal aldermen (and women) who comprise our city council…For the city to continue to function…we must, all of us, play this game…Secretly though, I am disgusted with these people…Watching Chicago aldermen glad-hand and smile at city events is like watching fashion models who are ugly and weigh 400 pounds but expect to be complimented on their pleasing features and toned physiques…I spend my days longing to see Chicago face some real test or trial that will expose these people for who and what they actually are. I long for a crisis. For a disaster. For an invasion." Hey, Ben! You should be careful what you wish for.
Pastor Leopold Mack, pastor of The Church of Heaven's God in Christ Lord Jesus, is old enough to have had a brief street-thug period and to have fought in Vietnam. Now, he is the pastor of a large Black church in Chicago's South Shore area. "God 'accelerated' my life is how I like to put it. I was 'fast-forwarded' to rock bottom ahead of everybody else. He let me reach my lowest moment after just five years, when I was still salvageable…I remember looking at myself in the long, cracked mirror…and it was like God touched me. Like, he physically touched me…Then God tested me. I suddenly started thinking about how I would never take another pill in my life—never feel that warm rush that made everything okay…A horrible panic seized me…I stopped right there on Jeffery Boulevard, clutching at my chest with everyone looking at me like I was crazy…I could have gone to a hospital. I could have called for a policemen or an ambulance. But then—looming above the other buildings—I saw the steeple of The Church of Heaven's God in Christ Lord Jesus…I'll always regret that part of my life…It will always be with me. You don't 'get better.' You don't 'get over it.' You maintain, and—when you can—you try to help people. That's the only way it ever gets a little less awful."
Leo attempts to provide solace for his congregants, but he's fighting an uphill battle against the toxic characteristics of the culture of poverty: unemployment, inferior schools, teen pregnancy, casino gambling, substance abuse, and street violence. In his first chapter, he takes the reader on a tour of the South Side, providing an up-close and personal look at the problems his people face. Also in that early chapter, the pastor reveals that he has a dark, shameful secret, which is hilariously revealed near the end of the story.
Maria Ramirez is the defiant, twenty-something drummer for the all-girl punk rock band, Strawberry Brite Vagina Dentata. She has little use for politics and religion and tends to live in the moment, concentrating all of her energies on her music. During the week, in order to earn a living, the Strawberry Brite girls become The Kitty Kats from Heaven, "Chicago's premier all-girl cover band, available for weddings, private parties, and corporate events." Here is Maria's description of the transition from winter to spring in Chicago: "When it snows in Chicago…Chicagoans start to notice that they can stop looking for a trash can when they have to throw something away. If they drop a cigarette butt or candy wrapper, the snow will cover it. If they fail to clean up after Fido..., no one is the wiser. It's kind of a test to see if we'll keep putting rubbish in its place, even if nobody can tell if we did. And it's a test Chicagoans always fail. Each year when the temperature shoots up to fifty, we step outside—breathing in that invigorating spring air—and we're confronted with our own bad citizenship. The sidewalks and yards are strewn with our trash and animal shit. All the things we tried to conceal are staring us...in the face."
The zombie plague begins on a dark and snowy night, and within hours it has spread throughout the city. For the last three days, viral videos of supposed zombies had been circulating across social networking sites—corpses twitching at their own funerals and autopsied cadavers seemingly coming to life. Up until now, though, the zombies hadn't moved around too much, and they hadn't attacked anyone. That's about to change.
The three main characters meet in random ways (e.g., Ben helping Leo change a flat tire, Maria meeting Ben at Trump Tower where her band is playing for a political event). The Internet and TV news shows are full of breaking news about possible zombie sightings, but the general unrest does not shift into full panic mode until the mayor and his wife are attacked and eaten by zombified long-dead mobsters (including Al Capone) on live TV. That event triggers a stampede by the live citizenry as they head for their suburban homes, clogging the highways and getting themselves eaten. As more and more zombies appear, it is soon evident that all of the bodies that the mob threw into Lake Michigan or dumped in various shallow graves are coming to non-sentient, hungry life. On the South Side, Pastor Mack's congregants don't run away; they head for the church, where they put together a plan to rescue the sick and the elderly and bring them to the comparative safety of the church building.
The three main characters meet, separate, and meet again throughout the book as they figure out that the crooked aldermen are using the zombie invasion as a means to take over the city. Even though coincidence plays a big part in the characters' separations and reunitings, the events don't feel contrived (except, perhaps for the too-quick and too-convenient ending). The three comrades scramble through the dead-infested streets, take shelter in various hideaways, and eventually find themselves hiking through Chicago's abandoned coal tunnels on their way to rescue the new mayor.
The heart of the book is not the zombie invasion. The themes are the power of community, the inherent weakness of insulated isolation, and the importance of honesty over corruption. The zombie survival lesson you learn from this novel is to be sure that you are a member of a strong, loyal social and/or religious group that will band together and defend one another. As Pastor Mack explains to his congregation, "You have become resourceful. You have become like the heartiest plants that can thrive in the most inhospitable soil. You have learned to create community…in this hostile soil…We know what to do when killers are on the loose. And now we have the skills that everybody else in the city wishes they had. We are a loving, caring, righteous congregation that already knows how to handle its business when assailed on all sides. I don't know about them, but we will survive!" In this novel, it's not the rich—the 2%—that make it out alive, it's the hardscrabble group at the bottom of the economy who pull together for the common good.
Although the walking dead are certainly a threat, the live humans are the evil ones in this story. Here, Pastor Mack muses about evil: "Zombies kill and eat people, yes, but so do Bengal tigers and great white sharks. Where's the evil there? I think, to get at real, Biblical-level, brimstone and hellfire evil, you need humans. Living humans, You need them for things like neglect, contempt, hatred, and avarice…The humans are the ones with murder in their souls…Zombies are just the natural disaster. The opening in the rift or evil to come on through."
Kenemore obviously knows his Chicago politics and appears to be as familiar with that city as he is with rural Ohio, creating an authentic sense of place as the zombies ravage every neighborhood. The three main characters are highly developed, and they provide a unique multidimensional view of their situation: Ben's wry political commentary, Pastor Mack's faith and idealism, and Maria's cynical distrust of almost everyone (except the one man who actually means her harm).
If you are a lover of zombie novels, be aware that this book is heavier on bureaucracy and payola than blood and guts. The zombie gore scenes are infrequent and—actually—not all that gory. The walking dead are mostly on the fringes of the story, presenting a serious threat but hardly more dangerous than the human murderers who are on the intrepid trio's trail. In fact, the zombie invasion is really a catalyst that harks back to Ben's words in the very first chapter when he says that he wants Chicago to face a disaster that will expose the corrupt politicians for who and what they really are. Rather than being a zombie apocalypse novel, this is really a story about Chicago in all its venal glory. Kudos to Kenemore for dreaming up a situation in which the city's famously crooked politicos actually grab hold of a zombie invasion and turn it to their own ends. What a concept—and it's written so realistically that it seems like it could (and probably would) actually happen.
Here are some links to the true identities and histories of three of Kenemore's fictional characters from the book. There may be more true-to-life characters, but these are the three that I recognized. Just click on the pink links for more information:
Fictional Character: Burge Wheeler
Real Person: Jon Burge, corrupt Chicago police commander who was imprisoned briefly for torturing suspects and threatening their families in order to obtain false confessions. He was released from prison in October 2014.
Fictional Character: Mystian Morph
Real Person: Roland Burris, appointed with great controversy by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president. Blagojevich was later imprisoned for setting up a pay-to-play scheme to determine who would get that Senate seat. Click HERE to view a photograph of Burris' TRAIL BLAZER mausoleum, which is described in the novel.
Fictional Character: Marja Mogk
Real Person: Arenda Troutman, the first female alderman to be charged with corruption while in office.