The Reapers are the Angels
Henry Holt, 2010
"She knows that words have the power to make things true if they’re said right.” Or written right. In The Reapers are the Angels, text flows with a providential force that delivers the story from the temporality of the flesh—and the flesh-eating—into high-stakes biblical territory, where the dramas of the living (and living dead) take their cue from the Word of the Lord, that quirky, time-tested author narrating in the sky—or living and writing in New York. In the midst of a Southern Sinai, where the herders and herded roam and recolonize while contending with an ongoing plague of zombies en masse, there is a pervading sense of compliance with the commandment that authorial fate rules all. As one of the characters puts it, “We’re just playing the parts written down and put before us.” Rotting bodies that return to life to eat the living aren’t humanity’s rotten luck—they’re rotting for a reason, and the reason is the storyteller’s alone.
The novel starts 25 years after the first wave of zombies rose from their graves, destroying the business-as-usual mentality of the culture at large. Now, with the mercenary economic system of America collapsed, and the majority of its communities abandoned for strongholds on the country’s perimeters, what’s left of life—surviving, the search for meaning in surviving, and an icy glass of one of the remaining carbonated relics of Coca-Cola—is less prone to distraction. When Temple is asked by a shielded suitor in Longview, Texas—one of the fortified areas where the remaining humans gather, so relatively insulated in the context of the novel—what she does for fun, the narrator struggles to come up with an answer comparable to a mild question. “Most of the things she likes to do are related to the project of staying alive in the world, and those things don’t seem to be on the same level as playing a guitar.”
A khukuri-wielding tom-belle in her early teens, Temple, the novel’s sacred-profane protagonist, houses all of the confusion, guilt, outrage, and freedom left in a country that perhaps had it better before the “meatskins” (or “slugs,” or “gobblers”) putrefied the American dream; perhaps not; Temple isn’t so sure. “These stories have always sounded suspect to Temple—gilt-dipped in nostalgia. In her own experience, she’s learned that happiness and sadness find their own level no matter what’s biting you, mosquitoes or meatskins.” A streak of folksy wisdom and humor runs through Temple’s journey, which takes her from a deserted island off the coast of Florida up north a ways before heading back south on a mission of mercy—after finding him with the stirring corpse of his grandmother in his arms and full-fledged zombies on his trail, Temple rescues a large and simple mute who becomes her charge for the rest of the novel. (She also has a run-in with a pair of brothers named Abraham and Moses; the outcome, which leaves one of the two men hell-bent on revenge, forms part of the novel’s awesome display of contrivance over plausibility.)
On the road, Temple discovers a bizarre oasis of Southern Gothic industry, navigating the zombie catastrophe while encountering an almost parodic series of archetypes—fiercely loyal kin, soulful hobos, crude hicks, declining gentry, (literally) mutating Bible-Belters, all, in their own way, enduring a period of unequivocal human endangerment. Even under the worst conditions set by the narrator (“We got Armageddon every direction it looks like,” Temple remarks at one point, driving through a horrific panoply of the undead), the narrative maintains the human need for a moral code. “It’s one thing to feel like there’s a few rotten things knocking around inside you like some beans in a can. But it’s another thing to feel like those things are what your heart and stomach and brain are built out of.” Temple’s mute—who lumbers into the novel direct from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—embodies all the crosses she, Caddy, and so many before them were crafted to bear.
The divined nature of Temple’s revelations and misadventures gives Alden Bell (a pseudonym for New York author Joshua Gaylord) license to make them as corny, epic, sentimental, or grotesque as the story requires. Temple and Moses are in on the artful scheme: “You gotta die by my hand…That’s all, you just have to. Otherwise none of it makes any goddamn sense. You know it. You and me, we got vision.” The vision is as towering, awful, and miraculous as they come, written down by a writer whose work is a testament to the lure of language. The Reapers are the Angels secures a place among skies full of “stories taller still that reach up and hook you by the britches on the cusp of the moon, where you can look and see the earth whole, and you can see how silly and precious a little marble it really is after all.”