February 20, 2011

Tooth and Nail (Review)

Tooth and Nail (2010)
Craig Dilouie

Schmidt Haus Books: 2010


4.5 / 5 zedheads

Tooth and Nail is one of the best zombie novels of 2010 if not one of the best zombie novels ever written.

I don't say this to be hyperbolic or to manufacture some kind of shallow promotional blurb. In fact, there are two solid reasons I shouldn't like Tooth and Nail in the first place. First, it is written primarily from the military point of view, in great technical detail, and I tend to bore easily of such military stories and jargon. Second, the zombies are not the living dead but the fast-running infected, not my favorite form of zombie (although I'm not opposed to them). However, Dilouie's masterful command of prose, dialogue, and visceral apocalyptic detail cuts through my biases like a line of heavy automatic weapon fire. His writing leaves me open to experience the rush of a truly harrowing, grisly, bleak, yet exciting and honest story about the military's fight to survive the end of humanity from the tooth and nail of a zombie horde.

In both its premise and its execution, Tooth and Nail will put your heart through a meat grinder.

In the novel, a highly infectious flu-like plague called Lyssa is beginning to spread to millions of Americans. Attempts to manage the epidemic are already putting a strain on America's infrastructure and health care system -- so much so, in fact, that platoons of soldiers fresh from the horrors of the Iraq war have been stationed in New York City to protect hospitals and other essential buildings. But this is only the beginning: Lyssa is actually carrying a vicious mutant strain that starts to turn the infected into violent, rabid savages with no fear, no remorse, and no other motivations than to bite and kill. Kill and bite. Dubbed "Mad Dogs," these rare infected cases surge in number, transforming into a full-fledged apocalyptic pandemic. Like pus-filled boils, hospitals begin to erupt and send Mad Dogs spilling into the streets. Like the bodies of its own citizens coursing with the virus, soon the veins and arteries of New York City's streets are also coursing with a feverish horde of Mad Dogs tearing the city apart from the inside.

Craig Dilouie's narrative follows several groups of American soldiers from the beginning of the Mad Dog assault to what can only be called the end of the world. New York falls to the Mad Dog horde, the military is in disarray, soldiers and civilians revolt, and the streets of New York become the sites of epic bloodbaths as the last remnants of the city's humanity rage against the oncoming dark of their own extinction. In between the violence, Dilouie takes you into the hearts and minds of the soldiers to explore their own emotional and mental struggles. When one swears to protect America, what does one do when all that's left of America is a memory and an idea? Where is the line between fighting and surviving? In this new landscape, how does one distinguish between duty and self-preservation?

Dilouie's greatest accomplishment is his emotional interest in his characters. One of the reasons I usually hate military stories is for their fetishistic description of military weapons technology. Sometimes I read stories more interested in describing the ins and outs of various types of carbines and ammo than the characters who wield them. While Dilouie's novel is indeed steeped in military detail (to the point that it requires a page devoted to explaining all the military abbreviations), he also explores a wide scope of diverse characters and breathes real vivid life into the men on the front lines. Tooth and Nail is neither a jar-headed exercise in unthinking military hero worship (hooah!), nor is it an anti-military criticism of chain-of-command / just-following-orders mentality. In fact, I was struck by how honestly and nuanced Dilouie depicts the military. In particular, he focuses on how the military's strict terms of engagement are particularly difficult for the soldiers to break when they're ordered to shoot infected civilians. Dilouie's soldiers are not cavalier murderers. They're human beings with all their individual faults and feelings. Dilouie uses the event of a zombie apocalypse to examine what it takes for a human being to kill not only foreign enemies but his or her own people.

Unfortunately, this character examination is also the novel's one weak point. To have such a scope of character, Dilouie hops the narrative around between too many characters and too many different groups. There is no core group of protagonists in Tooth and Nail. Chapters will be devoted to characters who never appear again. I also found it difficult to keep the characters straight in my mind and struggled recognize them when they reappear later in the story. Tooth and Nail is a whirlwind tour through the hearts and minds of scores of primary and incidental characters. While this establishes an epic scope to the apocalypse he depicts, his characters also become muddled and easily forgettable at the end of the day.

Furthermore, while many different views and opinions are given voice in the story, one set of voices is curiously absent. Where are the female soldiers? All the soldiers we meet are men. The only female character we are presented with in any detail is a research scientist the soldiers must eventually attempt to rescue. While most women in the military serve in the Airforce or Navy, in 2010 women made up 76,193 of 566,045 active duty soldiers in the US Army (that's 13.5%). That Dilhouie couldn't find the space in his novel for the voice of these female soldiers feels to me like a missed opportunity to fully represent the US military.

Regardless of its faults, Tooth and Nail is a gripping novel not limited in appeal to fans of military stories. The novel has heart and guts, in more ways than one. If you love zombie and apocalyptic narratives, and Tooth and Nail passed you by, you missed one of the best zombie novels of last year. Double back, and pick it up in paperback or for the Kindle today.

And that's an order, soldier.