Christopher Jessulat’s new novel ‘The Decline’ gives a glimpse of Saint John as a nearly lifeless wasteland overrun by zombies. Hopefully he’s not being as blunt with his metaphors as George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
When someone writes a book about the zombie apocalypse, especially in your home town of all places, you want it to be good. If Stephen King were to mention the great beyond – the terrifying land of New Brunswick that exists past the borders of his own unnaturally disturbing state of Maine – we’d be engrossed. We’d be glued to every page to find out what this literary titan had twisted out of our little corner of the world.
But Jessulat isn’t Stephen King. He’s a New Brunswicker writing about the very city he’s living in, and naturally that means he’s going to be held to an impossible standard. Jessulat is describing a place I’ve called home, streets that I am intimately familiar with – he has essentially (knowingly or not) imagined a situation in which I am very likely dead. Not that it’s something I take personally, but where one might feel free to liberally imagine the fictitious town of Cropsford, Maine, filling in the scenery as the plot unfolds, instead we are left scrutinizing the logistical details of a very real and familiar location.
We’ve all been obsessing over this idea since before Max Brooks wrote his ‘Zombie Survival Guide” before Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore gave us ‘The Walking Dead’, Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ remake, and basically any time after we got tired of debating pirates and ninjas. Each of my apartments had elaborately though out plans for any eventuality of a zombie apocalypse.
How many blocks is it from the Coast Guard Building to St Joseph’s Hospital? How long would it take you to walk it? What if you had to do it without being seen?
Some of the bigger picture aside, you can probably work all that out in your head, or at least attempt to. All the while you’re second guessing the actions of the characters, and the plot gets lost in the details.
Jessulat is more Tom Clancy than Stephen King. Each character can be broken down into a skillset – heavy on the weaponry description and combat style. It feels as though the book’s heroes are arrived at through a process of elimination, but that’s often how these stories go. Don’t get attached. Somethings work and somethings keep you alive, but they aren’t necessarily the same things that will make a character likeable. At least by the end of the book we know who we should be caring about.
‘The Decline’ does manage to hit its stride after the thirty-some pages of pure introduction with nary a scrap of dialogue. The weakness of exploring a known terrain proves a double-edged sword as we rediscover the city in the wake of a disaster. We see Jessulat’s analysis of Saint John – the potential hubs, resources, and weaknesses, often presented in the form of a handful of the city’s ailing and underutilized spaces. Whether that’s intended as irony or not, it does give us something to think about – a zombie novel in an urban environment may as well be a dissertation on the ergonomics of city planning.
It is a zombie thriller though, and that is a genre that deals in absolutes. Inevitably there are only two outcomes in that scenario with just enough wiggle room to make it interesting. While the story ends abruptly, with the characters having tackled their objective and survived (or not, as they tend to), it does leave the pieces setup for a more intricate sequel. Series get built one book at a time.
So buy a copy, take it to the pub, and collectively rip it apart as a fun thought exercise. Don’t tell anyone your actual plans, that will only get you looted or killed, and remember that no amount of preparation is a substitute for cardio.