Monday, 10 January 2011

Book Review | Pariah by Bob Fingerman

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The world is in chaos. A zombie plague has devoured every nation on the planet. New York City is no exception. Imagine eight million zombies. Shoulder to shoulder. Walking the streets, looking for their next meal. The residents of one apartment building have bonded to keep themselves safe from the onslaught, but their inevitable demise lurks right outside their window, a constant reminder of the doom that awaits them. Forced to remain in the safety of the building, the tenants find themselves at each others' throats. When they spy a lone teenage girl who walks among the hordes, unattacked by the undead, their world opens up.


The thing about Pariah is that it's not really about the zombies.

I mean, they're everywhere, sure: shambling en masse around the apartment block our motley lot of survivors have barricaded themselves inside, good and ready to rip anyone who dares brave the mean streets of New York City from limb to limb - then to eat those very limbs. But they're not the point of Pariah, not really... they're more setting than threat, and though a few tenants think otherwise, frankly anyone who deems a horde of zombies "an acceptable risk" deserves what they've got coming to them. Which, let's face it, isn't going to pretty.

Anyway, for his first trick (at least in prose fiction), comic book savant Bob Fingerman has opted to take the road less travelled; to proffer up a story about a couple of folks coming to terms with the end of the world as they'd known it, care of the undead. And it's pretty good. A little forgettable, perhaps - it's not going to go down in history or anything - but fun, and fun in abundance.

Now there've been other books which set character-centric narratives against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse before. Most memorable of all in recent years, there was The Reapers Are The Angels, Alden Bell's Southern Discomfort of a tragedy about a little girl who never  did know another life. Pariah isn't like that at all. Just so you know. No, it's more akin to The Walking Dead - and I mean the graphic novels. The less said about last year's tepid adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's undead legacy the better, I tend to think. As per The Walking Dead the comic book, then, Pariah is about the zombies only insofar as its cast of characters are on occasion forced to confront them, whether for food or shelter or survival, plain as Jane. The rest of the time, it's a narrative about people trying to get by in dire circumstances.

Fraught and mostly fast-paced, Pariah follows an odd handful of survivors - among them a bitter old Jewish couple, a MILF terrified of her failing physique, a staunchly closeted quarterback and his put-upon boy-toy, a struggling artist (aren't they all?) and a misbegotten young man who finds God in the apocalypse - as they butt heads with one another. Sometimes literally. Hardly the best and brightest of humanity, this random assortment of individuals are all the more entertaining precisely for their failings. And the problems they each face - whether with self-image, religion, sexuality and so on - feel all the more urgent because an army of the undead are waiting at the gates.

At times, Pariah threatens to wear out its tenuous welcome. A series of completely superfluous, if action-packed flashbacks serve only to disguise the fact that there's very little momentum to the plot till Mona - an addled little goth girl the zombies inexplicably give the cold shoulder - turns up at the halfway point. Till then, Pariah is more than a little slow; not so you'd notice, if you weren't looking, but by conventional narrative standards very little happens. And the characters, though they play off one another well, are lamentably one-note.

In the end, however, what wins out isn't the iffy pacing or the transparent survivors - for there are scenes where the pacing is spot-on, and Eddie, cruel and unusual, brings each of his exponentially more crazed scenes to life - it's Pariah's irreverent and wickedly dark sense of humour. In one particularly memorable sequence, the homophobic jock aforementioned goes flynchin' for zombies from the roof of the apartment block. "What an awesome combo," he professes, ever the humble sort, as he snags his first catch. "Fishin' and lynchin' [...] Oh dude, that's genius. Genius!" (p.258)

And yes. In a sick sort of way, yes, it is. If the idea of flynchin' tickles your ivories at all, you'll surely find a lot to love about Bob Fingerman's debut. Twisted as a pig on a spit, Pariah won't be for everyone, but for those of us with the stomach for it, it's a damn fine time whatever its deficiencies, and make no mistake.


by Bob Fingerman

US Publication: August 2010, Tor (Forge)

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  1. Well, cheers for Pariah! And a happy new year to you too, Bob. You ever have anything else you'd like to see a sell-out Scotsman pimp, you let me know, eh? :)