The current horror zeitgeist, the zombie apocalypse, is arguably a product of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. Zombie books and movies take place in the mundane places of everyday life and reflect a horror that has come home, attacked ordinary people and altered the landscape in some permanent, unwelcome fashion. The enemy is a familiar but a completely new creature, unfathomable in motivations and in many ways indestructible; kill one, and another takes its place.
That nobody has bothered writing a novel about the U.S. Army fighting zombies is a bit surprising, but that’s been fixed now.
The zombie sub-genre is glutted with bad fiction, with many titles poorly written recycling tired story lines. By this time next year another dozen zombie books will have been published, but none will probably be as good and ultimately satisfying as Craig DiLouie’s new novel Tooth and Nail. It’s the Black Hawk Down of the zombie genre. It’s that good.
Tooth and Nail is the story of a U.S. Army light infantry platoon that has been quickly deployed from Iraq back to the United States. The world is in the grip of an influenza pandemic and millions are dead, with millions more infected. In order to secure the homeland, the United States begins a massive operation to redeploy American forces from every corner of the globe. “OIF is over,” the military announces, rather abruptly. Relief gives away to unease among the infantrymen: if they’re sending everyone home from Iraq, what is home like?
Second Platoon, Charlie Company, 1-75 Infantry has just been redeployed from the outskirts of Baghdad to a hospital in Manhattan. They are stuck in the bottom of an urban canyon of concrete and glass, watching helplessly as society unravels in front of their eyes, held back by a lack of manpower and, more importantly, the Rules of Engagement. Strange characters haunt their perimeter at night; as it turns out, the flu turns some victims into violent, mindless killers, known as Mad Dogs. Even worse, there seems to be more of them with each passing hour.
Tooth and Nail breaks new ground in realistically depicting how soldiers would react towards combat on their own soil, against their own citizens, with modern weapons. They can’t believe it either. If you think the ethical dilemma of fighting guerrillas among civilians in a foreign country is unnerving, imagine what it’s like when the enemy is among your own people, naked and bleeding, an eyeball swinging from its socket, drooling, clawing for your throat. Gradually as the gravity of the situation dawns upon them, their reticence to shoot other Americans — even infected ones — is overtaken by events.
DiLouie is a gifted writer and the book moves along at a crisp pace. There is no camp or tongue in cheek — the book is played straight. One of the great strengths of the book is the characterization. You get to know many of the characters, and you care about them. There is no cloying prose to describe the soldiers and their ideals, their honor and their patriotism. They are simply professional soldiers trying to do the best they can. The officer-NCO relationship between Second Lieutenant Todd Bowman and his platoon sergeant, Kemper, is dead on.
The book shines in other ways. Dialogue is realistic, lively and devoid of cliches. The culture of the infantryman is portrayed well. Comms chatter sounds authentic. Weapons are generally described accurately but not overemphasized and fetishized like they are in many techno-thrillers. The newest high-tech weapon system isn’t going to keep the platoon alive. The sergeants will.
DiLouie nails the fighting man, particularly the American fighting man. He gets him, from the banter between soldiers to the outlook on the average joe’s life. In-between the relentless zombie hordes, you could forget this is a horror novel and imagine these at Valley Forge, Chickamagua, Belleau Wood, Hue City or Fallujah. Tooth and Nail is a tribute to the fighting man, the kind of book that will be passed around the FOB or barracks until it falls apart.