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Crazy in the City

By (July 1, 2010) One Comment

Tooth and Nail

By Craig DiLouie
Schmidt Haus Books, 2010

I tend to use bus stops to rate my books. You see, I do most of my reading on the bus going to or from work. If a book is particularly engrossing I will often ride right past my stop, completely ignoring the announcements; the more stops I miss, the better the book. Richard Matheson’s I am Legend still holds the record: 5 missed bus stops in one sitting. Was I late to work? Absolutely! But I didn’t really care that day. David Moody’s Hater had a good showing with two missed stops. I was able to get back to my stop in a short walk, but the fact that I forgot to look up at all for nearly ten minutes is a sign of how absorbed I was by it.

Craig DiLouie’s military-flavored zombie novel Tooth and Nail made me miss a whopping four bus stops. It’s a fun and outstanding read, and had the bus kept going I would have missed at least four more stops. Matheson’s record was saved only by the fact that my bus was at the end of its line.

Tooth and Nail follows the outbreak of an epidemic in New York City. We stick with an Army division that has been yanked back from Iraq to help with the sudden troubles back home. When the story begins, the soldiers are guarding a hospital admitting people who have contracted the Hong Kong Lyssavirus, which at first seems to be a very strong and quickly moving flu-like malady. Initially some people seem to recover after contracting it, but also some die quickly. The assignment to guard the hospital seems to be fairly routine – that is, until the unit is told to turn away everyone who comes to get treatment.

More and more people are lining up to get help, and the hospital has run out of beds. The troops are given a list of other hospitals in the city where the afflicted can go, but that’s about the extent of the help they can offer. This is all just fine by the troops; after all, they’re no longer in Iraq. This is the US. Not just the US, but the biggest and best city in the country, so everything ought to be easy to control, right? Yes, maybe, unless people start turning into violent rage-filled animals that tear each other apart and hunt down non-infected humans. These “mad dogs” or “maddies” turn this book very interesting, very quickly.

These infected are not dead (or undead), so this is not technically a zombie book; however the infected behave very similarly to zombies, and more importantly, the end result is just as terrifying as any zombie novel I’ve ever read. These mindless maddies will stop at nothing to seek out people and rip their flesh apart. Also, maddies roam in packs and can communicate with one another by moaning and yelping. They’re reminiscent of the berserkers in 28 Days Later and the haters in Hater. Just imagine being stationed in the most densely populated island in the country with a rampant maddy outbreak, and you can begin to understand the hysteria that DiLouie conveys.

While many successful zombie books rely on terror alone to keep the reader gripped, DiLouie also does an exceptional job of creating believable and sympathetic characters out of the soldiers. He is able to craft a team that has served together for years and therefore has a bond, a brotherhood. All of these men understand and look out for one another – yet can intensely annoy each other too, often all at the same time (the book abounds in examples of grim but effective humor). This group functions as a team: after a soldier, Mooney, sees his first example of the maddies’ fearsome violence:

On the floor next to the cot, lay a neatly severed child’s hand.

“Oh God,” Mooney says quietly, swallowing hard.

He steps over a broken M4 and a handful of empty shell casings.
On the other side of the cot, three dread civilians lay in a heap on top of a soldier who died grimacing in pain. His scalp has been torn ripped off his skull and is sprouting from the mouth of one of the Mad Dogs, hair and all.

“No,” Mooney says, then vomits neatly into the sink of one of the chemistry tables.

The other boys halt, waiting for him to finish. Nobody razzes him, not even Wyatt.

Almost everybody has lost it at least once in the past ten hours.

Mooney has been the annoying little brother of the troop up to this point. He makes inappropriate jokes and gets a little over-excited about getting to use guns, but none of that really matters when he needs their support. When one of their men needs a moment to collect himself, even when time is tight, his fellow soldiers are there for him. The contrast between this fellowship and the feral pack-mentality of the maddies is instructive.

DiLouie also does a patient, meticulous job of letting the story unfold in a realistic way. We assume at the beginning that the army is well informed, well organized and that if anything were to change about the situation in New York City they would be the first to know. They make the same assumption, which means that they are baffled when their lines of communication start to break down and their rules of engagement are rewritten. They’re intensely confused and even frightened when they receive new instructions to start shooting civilians (infected civilians, but citizens nonetheless). These men are soldiers, and elite ones at that. They have been fighting in Iraq, and have now been brought home for the explicit purpose of protecting Americans. Or so they thought. Only now they’re given no choice but to kill many Americans because of an infection that they don’t understand. They justifiably have trouble coming to grips with their new reality. Here is Mooney, trying to mentally process a maddy attack:

Mooney hears a scuffle on his left, followed by a hideous thunk sound and a sharp yelp. He turned just in time to see the sergeant pull his shovel out of a woman’s head and shove her corpse to the asphalt. McGraw signals to them: Don’t stop, keep moving.

The Sergeant whispers in the dark, “Sorry, Ma’am.”

Mooney cannot stop himself from wondering who she was before she crossed over and became one of them. An important movie producer? A magazine editor? A meter maid? A substitute teacher? Did she have a husband or was she single? Did she have kids? Was she planning a vacation to Mexico over the winter?

Was she a terrorist who was going to blow up New York?

Was she a scientist about to discover the cure for cancer?

We’ll never know.

The soldiers all understand that none of these people had any control over whether or not they became infected. None of them wanted this. Not the infected, not the soldiers, no one. By telling the story from the soldiers’ perspective – and by so thoroughly humanizing his soldiers – DiLouie allows the reader to simultaneously sympathize with the soldiers and the infected.

A crucial element to the success of Tooth and Nail is the setting of New York City. While everyone might not be able to relate to a zombie (or zombie-esque) novel set in a tundra, or the middle of a desert, New York is on some level or other instantly familiar. When the troops are sweeping through Times Square, trying to get to their last command point on the other side of the city, you can picture these soldiers moving through the deserted concrete canyons in full riot gear with their guns at the ready. To my mind’s eye, the scenes evoked even the media image of Manhattan as it was being cleared after the September 11th attacks. We have seen New York at its grimmest, and we know how frightening that can be.

While I delighted in the personal relationships and gore-tastic maddy attacks, other more military-minded readers will thoroughly enjoy Tooth and Nail’s technical fixation. DiLouie clearly did abundant research on the military in order to make this book accurate. The weapons, the lexicon, the attitudes and the activities of these soldiers are all written effortlessly and fluently. DiLouie will have a scene in which the soldiers sitting around cleaning their guns and talking about the ways that their basis of reality is spiraling out of control. Throughout the scene he will weave in the process of the gun-cleaning in the correct order, without missing an emotional beat. Considering that my eyes usually gloss over whenever anything technical about the military is mentioned (I regard this as a by-product of living with a military history nerd) I was amazed that DiLouie never lost me during these scenes. I did not mind the military procedures because they’re never the point of the scenes in which they happen.

DiLouie has these men cleaning their guns because that is what soldiers would be doing in their down time, not because DiLouie wanted to show off the research that he did on gun-cleaning. Also, there is a glossary of military acronyms in the beginning of the book that was very helpful for readers like me who kept forgetting what a LAV or VCIED is. DiLouie does not stop to explain what every little term means, or what the chain of command is; rather he shows it to you, and gives you a cheat sheet in case you need a little more help.

To those who do not like to read zombie-like books on the basis that they are not tautly written, not well researched, or have poor character development, I would say to read Tooth and Nail and prepare to eat your words. Also, prepare to miss your bus stop.

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.