In a lot of zombie stories, the zombies are really secondary characters. In a lot of ways, this is the way it should be. We should be focusing on the characters and how they develop, meet, and overcome the obstacles in their paths. The characters are ultimately what matters, and the zombies are simply part of the scenery.
The only problem is that this is usually easier said than done. Zombies are the selling point for a lot of books, because zombies are en vogue. That makes it challenging for the writer to downplay that element of the story to focus on other things, and that’s why it usually doesn’t happen. Rag Men breaks this trend. Yes, it’s certainly a zombie book, but the zombies’ role in the story is relegated to the background. They’re the reason things are falling apart, and our protagonists have to deal with them periodically, but they’re never the focus of the story.
So who are our protagonists? There are two, and they seem to be diametrically opposed.
The first is more of a traditional hero character: Colin Ross runs a small boxing gym, and is mourning the loss of his wife to Qilu (zombie) virus. Colin only wants to survive, and help out a developmentally disabled young man, Andre, who comes to depend on him.
The second character, “Rooster”, is something entirely different. Rooster is a drug-addicted psychotic who cuts a violent swath of destruction through the narrative of Rag Men. I can’t even begin to account for all the people he kills during the book, many of who are completely innocent.
Rooster is immediately more interesting, if for no other reason that his complete – and extremely violent – unpredictability. Despite this, there’s something that grounds Rooster and makes him seem human. Yes, he’s a violent psychopath, but he’s a very believable one that never comes across as a cartoonish caricature.
Aside from the zombie outbreak and the various travails each character goes though, Rag Men is further anchored with mysterious flashbacks that precede some chapters of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of either Colin or Ross, so it’s not clear which of these characters, if either, the flashbacks are referring to. It’s an interesting additional element to the book that adds a bit of mystery. I’d like to say more, but I’m wary of spoilers so I’ll stop here.
Rag Men is a book that really surprised me with well developed characters that act and react realistically to a zombie outbreak. The writing is strong and visceral, although the twist at the end didn’t really work for me. Despite my praise, you should know that the book is unapologetic about its brutal violence. It can be tough to read for this reason, especially because many of Rooster’s victims are innocent bystanders.
In the end, Rag Men is more Taxi Driver than Dawn of the Dead, although it combines core elements for these genres quite seamlessly.