A zombie plague has wiped out 95 percent of America. Camps of survivors band together in pockets across the country, waiting for small squadrons of human "sweepers" to inch their way across major cities, destroying the remaining zombie-like creatures hiding out in office buildings and shopping malls.
But now the human sweepers have to tackle their biggest challenge yet: clearing the undead from Lower Manhattan.
That's the setup of Colson Whitehead's post-apocalyptic zombie novel Zone One. The book tracks a team of human "sweepers" as they make their way through a walled off area of New York City over the course of three days.
Team leader Mark Spitz must stay calm to avoid the zombies lurking around every corner. But he keeps having flashbacks to the worst days of the zombie apocalypse, when everything — and everyone — in his life was destroyed.
"Mark Spitz is trying to reconcile moving to the city and becoming a real New Yorker with this empty landscape that confronts him," Whitehead tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "In Zone One, I'm describing New York a couple years in the future and it looks pretty much the same but the ruined city is superimposed on the city that's still standing."
Whitehead, who's also the author of Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days and The Colossus of New York, explains that he wrote his latest novel in part to pay homage to the grime-filled New York of the 1970s — and to the science fiction and horror novels he read as a child.
"It was staying in the house, being a shut-in as a 10-year-old and just curling up with The Twilight Zone or a stack of comic books that made me want to be a writer," he says. "I envied kids who played soccer and football, but that was not my gig."
Whitehead says that writers would be unlikely to survive an apocalyptic event — as would Olympians and other high-achievers.
"In the apocalypse, I think those average, mediocre folks are the ones who are going to live," he says. "I think the A-pluses will probably snuff themselves. The C-minus personalities will probably be killed off very quickly. But it's the mediocre folks that will become the heroes. ... Anyone who survives will be a hero."