All Day Breakfast
By Adam Lewis Schroeder
Douglas and McIntyre
378 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by Aaron Shepard
Zombies, as cultural icons go, are surprisingly durable and versatile: they can do straight-up horror or gross-out comedy horror. And they seem to have something more to say about us humans than the one-note, sexy vampires. Their shambling gait and rotting flesh suggests the entropy of society, the emptiness of our consumer culture. Their mindless rage reflects the futility and irrationality of our own. Zombies are the scapegoats we send out into the wilderness (and decapitate when they come stumbling back).
But what if zombies weren’t just the brainless seeking brains? What if they were just like you and me, only more flippant when losing a body part? What if their rage could be entirely– well, mostly – justified? What if they didn’t need to eat brains at all, just a bottomless supply of bacon?
That, in a nutshell, is Schroeder’s premise. When substitute teacher, vegetarian and recently widowed father Peter Giller leads his grade 11 class on a field trip to a plastics factory, an accident seems to trigger bizarre changes in them, including a ravenous urge for nitrites, and limbs that randomly fall off (“I must have slept on it funny,” one student mumbles nonchalantly about her missing arm). When it becomes apparent that someone – a mysterious corporation, the military – is hunting down everyone involved in the accident, Peter leaves his two children with his mother-in-law and hits the road with his fellow undead in search of a cure. Along the way they struggle with identity crises, anger management issues and their imminent decay.
Given Schroeder’s well-acclaimed past works – two novels and a short story collection that offered new takes on historical literary fiction – the question arises: is he merely slumming in the horror/comedy genre with All-Day Breakfast? Or is this literary fiction in disguise?
The answer is that he’s bringing the best of both genres together. While there are nudges and winks toward the CanLit scene (the name “Giller” is likely no coincidence), including a sly allusion to the late Paul Quarrington’s band, Pork Belly Futures, the story is heavier on action and plot than your average CanLit read. In fact, with subplots that include genetic experimentation, military contracting and the Congolese civil wars, All-Day Breakfast has more twists and turns than most horror novels. Packed with dense prose, the long ending threatens to lose steam while tying up loose ends, but is salvaged by a satisfying act of revenge. This is a loose, anarchic read tempered by intelligence and wit.
What really sets the book apart, though, is the depth of characterization. Schroeder’s characters, armed with razor-sharp dialogue and exquisite attention to detail, are (ironically) so full of life, the reader becomes quite attached: a dangerous thing in a novel where not everyone gets to live, true, but this lends his story a surprising poignancy. Peter Giller’s grief for his dead wife, absent children and undead students, serves to unify and enrich the often horrific imagery. As Giller frequently tells us: We each fall apart in our own time and in our own way.
Aaron Shepard’s first novel When is a Man is published through Brindle and Glass.