Breathers opens with the undead narrator’s discovery that he has killed and dismembered his parents, storing various parts neatly in the freezer/refrigerator. So I didn’t expect to find myself sympathizing with the zombie by the end of the book. And yet, I did. Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, by S.G. Browne is described on the cover as a romantic zombie comedy (or rom-zom-com) and while I wouldn’t say it was terribly successful as a comedy, it was an interesting and rewarding read.
Andy, the zombie narrator, is a recently reanimated zombie. No one in his life is very happy about his unexpected return from the dead—most especially Andy. He is living in his affluent parents’ wine cellar and spends his days watching terrible television, drinking his parents’ wine (which he can barely taste) and Undead Anonymous (UA) meetings just to have a place to go. Andy can’t talk, thanks to a combination of damage from the car accident that killed him and the fact that the embalmer sewed his mouth shut, so he communicates through grunts and notes on a dry erase board. He misses his late wife (killed in the same car accident) and his young daughter (who was sent to family in another town and was not informed of Andy’s reanimation) but is growing increasingly attracted to a sexy young zombie in his UA group, Rita. A chance encounter with a renegade zombie living “off the grid” helps Andy to find his purpose as a zombie and he begins fight back at the society that has literally thrown people like him away. He also begins a relationship with Rita, finding unexpected love after death. Of course, as one might expect in a zombie novel, the course of true love runs anything but smooth.
Breathers works best as an imaginative piece of genre-adjacent fiction. I call it genre-adjacent because it certainly isn’t pure horror or apocalyptic fiction, and the perspective switch from human to zombie takes it outside the realm of standard zombie stories (at least the few that I’ve read – maybe there’s a whole sub-genre of sympathetic zombie protagonists out there but this was a first to me.) Because Andy can’t speak, the entire first half or so of the book is Andy reacting silently to the world around him. This certainly brought me close to Andy and allowed me to understand his sense of hopelessness and frustration. But it created that frustration in me as well. I wanted Andy to be a greater participant in his unlife rather than simply observing and mentally reacting. That may have been intentional and thematic, but it certainly diminished the “comedy” aspect of the book, for me.
Browne’s take on how society would react to the awareness of zombies feels spot-on. Zombies are reviled, used as crash test dummies, or sold as medical testing subjects when no next-of-kin is available or willing to take on responsibility for them. Even walking (shambling) down the street is risky for the zombies, as passers-by pelt them with garbage and insults. After dark, it’s even worse, with frat boys attacking and taking souvenir body parts on a depressingly regular basis. The zombies have no protection and no rights. Even simple existence is on sufferance.
Andy’s relationship with his parents reflects this mindset. His mother’s fluttering attempts to continue to support and nurture him war with her innate disgust and embarrassment at having a zombie son. His father’s vocal contempt and increasing resentment of Andy’s state grow in pace with Andy’s refusal to hide away from the world. In some ways, it reminded me of how I’ve seen some families deal with family members suffering from mental illness/addiction: the shame, the helpless longing for a more normal life, the anger disguised as “tough love.” Again, it was very well done but very sad despite the absurdist comedy touches. By the time the book catches up to its grisly opening, I was relatively on-board with the whole parent-killing-and-preserving thing. (Mostly just the dad. Man, what a jackass.)
Andy’s relationship with Rita and all of the UA members were much more rewarding and entertaining, and the source of much of the comedy. From Jerry, the Playboy-loving zombie who invited people to touch his uncovered brains, to lipstick and nail polish-eating Rita (she needs the formaldehyde to keep from decomposing), Browne does a great job of moving the action along while crafting memorable, believable characters. And I’m talking about zombies here, so that’s impressive.
Overall, Breathers has a number of sardonic moments and even some laugh-out-loud funny ones. As a work of imaginative fiction, it works very well, but its overall melancholy tone and tragic moments are at odds with its marketing as a light-hearted comedy. That said, I would absolutely recommend it, just with the warning that—much like Andy and his zombie compatriots—what you’ll find inside is very different from what the exterior may lead you to believe.