The jacket copy of The Return Man by V.M. Zito doesn’t mention zombies. The closest it gets is “he tracks down the dead and delivers peace.” That could mean it’s about a guy who finds lost people, confirms their death (or not), and gives the family peace. It could mean that, but it doesn’t. It means the novel is all about killing zombies. All the expected themes, tropes, and tones (the three T’s if you will) that description calls to mind are likewise present. In that, Zito’s debut novel is a competent piece of zombie fiction. Unfortunately, that’s all it is.
Set after an outbreak of zombie-itis, Return Man tells the story of Henry Marco. Marco lives in the Evacuated States, or those states west of the Mississippi which have become a ravaged wilderness that the Safe States are trying to forget. It’s there that he makes his living tracking down shambling corpses as a contract exterminator for grieving families back east. Four years Marco has lived alone, scared to death he’ll wake up to find his missing wife’s corpse walking through the front door, but times change when Homeland Security calls.
For all those shortcomings, Zito does the story he’s telling justice. He writes a strong prose that flows well and the novel is paced beautifully. Marco is a well drawn character and as a former resident of the California desert, the landscape is rendered accurately and with care (he even gets all the freeways right). It’s just not enough. If science fiction is a fiction of ideas then the Return Man has to be found wanting.
All of that goes to say, I’ve read this before and I’ll probably read it again. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticize a novel for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Especially when it does it well enough to have me reading to the end, but I’ll forget The Return Man within a few weeks. I’ll forget it so thoroughly that the next time a zombie novel shows up in my to-read pile I’ll pick it up and give it a shot. I’ll probably have the same reaction. For those who don’t remember history, are doomed to repeat it.