First published back in February of 2005, US author Bowie Ibarra’s debut novel ‘Down The Road’ arrived as the growing popularity in zombie fiction was once again remerging. The novel was subsequently re-released in May of 2006 in a signed special edition format by Permuted Press, which included a three page introduction by fellow zombie author Travis Adkins, a seven page ‘Director’s Commentary’ in with Ibarra talks about the writing of his novel, and finally a nine page extract from the novel’s sequel – ‘Down The Road: On The Last Day’ (2006).
At first George Zaragoza didn’t believe the news reports swamping the airwaves. Reports stating that the dead had risen to life and were rampaging through the streets in search of human flesh to devour. And so for a couple of days the high school teacher sat alone in his apartment, waiting out what he presumed was merely hysterical madness out on the streets.
After a few days hauled up within the small confines of his apartment in Austin, Texas, George decides enough is finally enough. He needs to get out of there and back to his family in San Uvalde. But first, he has to stop off at Branton Junior High School (where he teaches) in order to retrieve a gold crucifix necklace that his deceased fiancée, Espaeanza Garcia, had given him before she died. The necklace holds a great amount of sentimental value to George, and after limited consideration of the potential dangers involved; he decides the risk is worth it.
Leaving the apartment George is confronted with a world on the fast lane to hell. Amongst the chaos, George watches as two police officers take advantage of the situation, distributing on the spot fines to the endless lines of cars trying desperately to get out of the city. George sees that a choice needs to be made. Someone needs to stand up against this gross misuse of power. Someone needs to fight back. And before he knows it, that very person is him.
After making some potentially life-changing calls en route to the school, George finally arrives at the deserted building. But the simple retrieval of the necklace doesn’t go quite how he had envisioned. The zombie menace is everywhere; and within the empty corridors and deserted classrooms of the school, George finds himself face-to-face with hordes of the flesh-eating undead. But what he hadn’t anticipated was to come across his fellow teacher, Keri Lawrence, at the school. For many a year George had fantasised about the eighth-grade Language Arts schoolteacher. And now here she is. And amongst the looming threat of the zombie apocalypse, it’s just too easy to get caught up in the passion of the moment.
After parting their ways to meet up with their respective families (Keri heading off to Houston), George starts on his journey southbound on the I-35 to his family in San Uvalde. A journey that will bring him face-to-face with the undead every step of the way. With the governmental soldiers, under the name of FEMA, crossing the line between protection and violent oppression. With militias fighting for survival, and FEMA camps ripping away the defences of its many captives, leaving the masses inside the camps prone to attack.
All along the way George Zaragoza will encounter fellow survivors who each shed their own light on how humanity will attempt to cling to survival. Desperation, aggression, fear and revenge have consumed the once great nation of the US. Violence is everywhere and the numbers of the flesh-eating undead are swelling by the day…
Bowie Ibarra’s zombie debut is clearly a work of absolute love for the author. It’s a novel that’s undoubtedly written by a zombie fan, telling a chaotic post-apocalyptic story that the author would clearly himself love to read. Ibarra’s kid-on-Christmas-Day style of enthusiasm towards the events taking place brings a colourful excitement and contagious energy to the storyline which is hard not to get caught up within.
Okay, so the novel isn’t exactly the most original of additions to this already incredibly saturated (and still growing) subgenre. And Ibarra doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s all a bit zombie-apocalypse-paint-by-numbers, with many of the usual themes and subplots stitched together to form a pretty darn standard zombie plotline.
But what the tale does bring (and it brings it in absolute abundance) is an immense passion and energy for everything that’s happening. Perhaps the most obvious example of this being the author’s utter hatred for the US governments actions on handling such a crisis, with his incredibly cynical (and hopefully incredibly distorted) view of the governmental FEMA body and their FEMA Camps, which boarder on resembling WWII Nazi concentration camps. Think Walter J Williams’ cruel post-earthquake camps in ‘The Rift’ (1998), crossed with the likes of David Moody’s mass execution camps in his novel ‘Hater’ (2006).
Indeed, Ibarra clearly has a heck of a grudge to bear against the government and their handling of the situation following the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. And it’s an anger that consumes much of the novel, making FEMA pretty much the main antagonist, with the poor old shuffling undead somewhat pushed over to the sidelines.
In a similar fashion to George Romero’s zombie masterpiece ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ (1978), Ibarra doesn’t go for any form of scare factor in the storyline, but instead embraces an action-packed and energetic pace that just goes for the jugular every time with a frenzy of bright-red bloodshed and gory frolics, all swirling around an adrenaline-pumping plot laced with tension and constant suspenseful cliff-hangers.
And then inject in some sex...and then some more...and then some more again. Oh yes, Ibarra goes all-out with his gratuitous sex scenes. Lurid scenes that don’t really serve any particular purpose to the plot other than to spice up the tale with a little rampantly-sordid zest. Most of which revolves around our principal protagonist – the teacher George Zaragoza and his irresistible charm with the ladies. Hmmmmm...the novel’s author is also a teacher. As you read the tale you do begin to wonder how much Ibarra was desperately trying to make himself out as this lead character, making him not only a bit of a hit with the ladies, but one hell of a hero to boot. Oh yes, he’s pretty much got it all and then some.
Comically cheesy and over-the-top characterisation aside, the general plot for the tale is once again a pretty bog-standard one for a zombie apocalypse tale: a hefty road trip to get back to your loved ones. It’s been done a hundred times before, and it’ll no doubt remain a popular plot idea for many zombie novels to come. So aside from the additional FEMA threat, what else does ‘Down The Road’ have to offer? Well, nothing exceptional, just the usual handful of looters and criminals alongside a post-apocalyptic backdrop that just keeps the whole unfolding tale taut and pretty darn tightly knitted together.
Absolutely nowhere in the novel does Ibarra try to tackle any particularly tricky or more thought-provokingly involved ideas. Even the reasoning behind the sudden outbreak is delivered in pure speculation from the characters. This doesn’t really harm the novel in any particular way. Indeed, if anything it helps in keeping the pace roaring onwards at a veritable mile-a-minute. The only time when the tale isn’t hurtling down another dangerous and action-rich route is when the story is put on hold for another of the principal character’s numerous flashbacks, all of which are meant to flesh out his background more, in particular the (slightly ludicrous) side-story of his fiancée’s murder.
But when that’s all said and done, the novel is still one hell of an exciting and fun-packed read. It’s paint-by-numbers zombie mayhem, with all the usual suspects jumping into a character rich storyline that just crams it all into one long road-trip. It’s not original, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not anything to shout from the rooftops about. But for all its unashamedly pulpish energy and gore, it’s still a heck of an enjoyable read.
The novel runs for a total of 149 pages.
© DLS Reviews