The Return Man – V.M. Zito

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.

Homeland Security! Dun dun dun! This may be hard to believe, but in a zombie/outbreak novel, the government is the bad guy. The political party in charge, who’s using fear to control the U.S. population, is the New Republicans! And guess who’s out to destroy the U.S.? China! I’m being snarky, but it doesn’t make my point any less valid. The premise is beyond trite and I had hard time with it throughout the novel. All of it’s window dressing to the actual narrative that condenses down to: go retrieve an item from a prison full of zombies 375 miles away and come back without getting bit by one of the million shuffling corpses roaming the countryside.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticize a novel for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Zito isn’t trying to rewrite the zombie novel the way Mira Grant did in Feed or Max Brooks did in World War Z. Social dynamics of the non-infested territory are barely addressed, and the nature of the spread of the infection doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. What’s left is a series of zombie dodging (rather convenient dodging at that) scenes and moments of lament over the sad state of affairs that Marco’s life has become. There are moments of tension, but by the fifth or sixth near bite I’d lost any sense of fear. Furthermore the ending… well… I just didn’t buy it.

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.

Written by justin


Justin is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.