2.7 8
by J.R. Angelella

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A zombie movie-obsessed teen is forced to face a dark family secret in this shocking debut literary novel from a talented new author.  

"Wow! A crazy, wicked knock-out of a book!" -Garth Stein

Fourteen-year-old Jeremy Barker attends an all-boys Catholic high school where roving gangs of bullies make his days a living hell. His mother is an


A zombie movie-obsessed teen is forced to face a dark family secret in this shocking debut literary novel from a talented new author.  

"Wow! A crazy, wicked knock-out of a book!" -Garth Stein

Fourteen-year-old Jeremy Barker attends an all-boys Catholic high school where roving gangs of bullies make his days a living hell. His mother is an absentee pillhead, his older brother a self-diagnosed sex-addict, and his father disappears night after night without explanation. Jeremy navigates it all with a code cobbled together from the zombie movies he's obsessed with: Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, Zombieland, and Dawn of the Dead among others.

The code is put to the test when he discovers in his father's closet a bizarre homemade video of a man strapped to a bed, being prepped for some sort of surgical procedure. As Jeremy attempts to trace the origin of the video, this remarkable debut moves from its sharp, precocious beginnings to a climax of almost unthinkable violence, testing him, and the reader, to the core.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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According to my father, there are three types of necktie knots: the
Windsor, the Half-Windsor, and the Limp Dick.

“Jeremy, I’d bet my hand,” he says, adjusting his seatbelt, “that
every swinging dick at Byron Hall wears the Windsor.”

“Could you not talk about dicks first thing in the morning?”

“The ladies love masculine things,” he says, pinching his silver
tie at the base of its knot.

“Dad, it’s an all guy high school.”

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

“What is?”

“The size of a man’s knot. His bastion of strength.”

“Don’t say bastion of strength. Gross,” I say, shivering.

“It’s true,” he says. “Fact. Proven.” Dad turns, facing me, and
exposes the flauntingly fat Windsor knot of his silver tie.

Welcome to Necktie 101. I will be your professor today.

According to Ballentine Barker, in order to make a Windsor,
you must cross the long, fat end over the short, skinny one; double
loop through the cross-over; make a tunnel over the loops;
and funnel it through. The Windsor usually makes you look like a

What is that Bible story about the whale and Jonah? Or is his
name Jonas? And Jonah is swallowed whole by some gigantic whale
for whatever reason—I don’t know—and Jonah lives inside the
whale? And then the whale spits him out. Or is it that he swims
out? Or is it that he gets blown out through the blowhole? Or does
he die inside the whale? Am I thinking of Moby Dick?

We pass a sign on the side of the road that reads Baltimore: The
Greatest City in America. Get in on it.

“When they say that—get in on it—what do they mean?” I ask.

“That Baltimore is a secret not many people know about,” Dad

“A secret?”

Get in on it. Be one of the people in the know. Be in on the
secret. A part of the club.”

“What secret? What club?”

“It’s like referring to Baltimore as Charm City. The name creates
a buzz where no buzz is buzzing.”

“Buzzing?” I ask.

Dad says, “You ask too many questions.”

Jackson used to call Baltimore by a bunch of different names.
B-town. Charm City. Crabtown. City of Firsts. Monument City. Mob
Town. Murderland.
He’d say them mainly to impress girls. They’d
stop by the house in the evenings. Groups of them. Whore-ds of
them. Get it? Whore-ds of them? And ask if he was home. They
would travel from far away. Randallstown. Ellicott City. Columbia.
Westminster. Cockeysville. Perry Hall. Take 81 South to Cold
Spring Lane or I95 to Russell Street past M&T Bank Stadium.
Travel just to see him. They’d stink of perfume, wearing short skirts,
tight tops, big hair, lipstick-red lips. Jackson would emerge from
his room, sometimes wearing only a robe, and descend down the
stairs like some Casanova Fuck. “Welcome,” he’d say, “to the City
of Firsts

What an ooze.

We drive past a middle-aged woman speed walking in pink
Spandex shorts and a black tank top. She has medium boobs, her
butt cheeks shifting back and forth with each step. The Spandex
cups her ass and hips such that she might as well be wearing underwear.
I immediately feel guilty, like I just lied to a priest. I think
about her tits. Amazing.

Dad taps his horn. “Ballentine likes what he sees,” he says. Dad
refers to himself in third person from time-to-time, including on
his voicemail messages. I am constantly reminded where Jackson
gets his ooziness. “A little beep-beep now and again keeps them
feeling young, son. Lets them know they still got it.”

“Do you think she has kids?” I ask.

“Not all mothers are your mother,” he says.

I’m surprised Dad mentions Mom at all, especially on the first
day of school as it always used to be her day. She would get up early,
make a big breakfast of pancakes and eggs and strawberry milk.
After, she’d pose me on the front steps of our house for the annual
first day of school photo. She kept the photos framed in a collage
on the wall, reaching all the way back to my first day of pre-school.
There’s a black rectangle on the wall where the collage used to
hang. Today there was no first day of school photo. Today there
was no breakfast or strawberry milk. I wonder where those framed
photos are now.

“Your mother is not here, Jeremy,” Dad says. “I am.” Dad’s car
drifts into the other lane, crossing briefly over the double yellow
lines before weaving around a garbage truck. “The size of a man’s
knot,” Dad continues, “indicates his massiveness.”

“Massiveness? Oh, Jesus.”


“Dad, seriously.”

“Listen. You need to hear this: Windsor equals monster. Half-
Windsor equals babyshit.”



Allow me to professor your ass with some Half-Windsor

The Half-Windsor folds like a paper football, easy with perfect
angles. Personally, I think it’s the best knot. It’s easier than the Windsor
because you only make one loop over the cross-over instead of
two. But getting the length right takes skill, practice, and a sense of
pride. Where the Windsor, more often than not, gives you a stumpy
bitch length, the Half-Windsor—if you get it right—hangs sexy
and perfect right to the tip of your belt. That triangular tip of the
tie skimming a silver belt buckle. It’s badass. Totally badass. But I
haven’t figured out how to tie it perfectly yet.

We drive past a private golf course—some members only club
surrounded in a super high fence to keep the wrong kind of people
out. There is a valley in the road, then a hill, which Dad accelerates
through, and as we reach the peak, I see Byron Hall in the distance.

Dad says, “Survival scenario—you’re in school. English. Zombies
crash through the windows. Unstoppable. Sick. Savage. Your
school is under siege. It’s a zombie apocalypse.”

“Crashing?” I ask.

He loosens his grip on the steering wheel, his fingers spread
open and relaxed. “Crashing.”

“I’m in English class and zombies are crashing through the

Dad coasts down a straightaway of red brick houses with long
driveways. A man wearing a cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses
navigates a wheelchair down his driveway to the street and slides
envelopes inside a mailbox. Dad rides the brake, cutting our speed
down quick, and looks over his shoulder as we pass, watching the
man spin and roll away from the street, retreating in his wheelchair,
completely legless.

“Dad, you said zombies were crashing through the windows of
my English class?”

“Right—crashing. They’re crashing.”

“Through the windows. A zombie apocalypse, you said.”

“What is your weapon and what is your escape plan?” He looks
at me longer than anyone driving should. “And no Minigun either.
You always say Minigun. Use another movie other than Planet Terror
as an example. Think outside the box.”

Stopped at a red light, I see the Byron Hall campus up across
from a strip mall, just like the one in Dawn of the Dead. His turn
signal clicks.

“Break the glass of one of those emergency panels with my
elbow, grab the axe, and chop my way across the street to the mall.”
I chop my arm from the school across the street to the mall. “Hold
up there. Last-stand style. Barricade the doors with bike locks from
a sporting good store and wait for the cavalry to come. I’d grab a
few extra things—blowtorch, propane tank. If I have to make a
bomb. Blow some shit up. What about you?” I ask.

“You couldn’t pay me to go back to high school,” he says.

We pass an empty football field with metal bleachers and two
yellow wishbone goalposts. Dad pulls in behind a long line of cars,
waiting to turn into the entrance. The sign out front reads: Byron
Hall Catholic High School for Boys
. We jerk to a stop at the top of the
circle where two Christian Brothers greet students as they enter.
The Brothers wear long black tunics that brush their shiny black
shoes, although if memory serves me correct from when Jackson
went here the Brothers have the options to wear the long black
tunic, or all black suits like a priest or just rock the regular sport
coat, button down shirt and tie. But not these Brothers. These
Brothers are old school. These Brothers look like hippie priests in
their tunics. The Byron Hall mascot, an angry fighting blue jay,
stands with the Brothers waving his blue-feathered wings at people
passing by. The blue bird is equal parts terrifying and gay.

“Well, here we are, son,” Dad says, palming the back of my head.

I knock his arm away. “You’re messing up my hair.”

He wipes his hand on a handkerchief. “It’s like a fucking grease
pit up there.”

“Hair gel.” I lower the overhead visor to see the mirror, to fix
the brown curls he ruffled out of place, the curls I rushed this
morning to not make him late. I comb a few strands of hair back
into a part and adjust my thin black tie. I aim my shoulders to the
door, so he won’t see my knot.

“Look at you,” he says, poking me in the back. He drapes his
arm over the wheel. “Barely a freshman and already primping like
a Revlon girl.”

“Quit,” I say, slamming the car visor up. I grab my book bag
and push open the door when his hand grabs me by my navy blue
sports coat.

“I’ll quit,” he says. “Sure. If you turn around.”

“I’m late.”

“I’m your father.”

I know what he wants to see, but it’s his fault for rushing me this
morning, goddamit.

“I’m really going to be late for homeroom. You’re going to make
me late.” Dad’s words from my lips.

Dad smells like aftershave and coffee and bleach. He disappeared
again last night. Showed up at the house early—scattered, paranoid,
rushed. Like always, Dad disappeared and no one knows anything
about it. He thinks he’ll be able to keep it a secret. He thinks he
will be able to scare people away, but I follow the Code—Zombie
Survival Code (ZSC)
. The ZSC is a list on how to survive
a necroinfectious pandemic, otherwise known as a zombie apocalypse.
B-t-dubs, it should be noted, that I totally ripped the idea of
survival rules off of Zombieland. Big holla to Jesse Eisenberg. I don’t
know if I heard this somewhere or thought it up myself, but here
is the deal—rules are meant to be broken, but codes are made to
be followed.

Zombie Survival Code #1: Avoid Eye Contact (ZSC#1)
Zombie Survival Code #2: Keep Quiet (ZSC#2)
Zombie Survival Code #3: Forget the Past (ZSC#3)
Zombie Survival Code #4: Lock-and-Load (ZSC#4)
Zombie Survival Code #5: Fight to Survive (ZSC#5)

“I asked you to turn around,” he says. “Show me. Now.”

“You want me to miss first period?” ZSC#1: Avoid eye contact—
I look away.

“I want you to obey your father. It’s in the Bible. Now turn

I’d been hiding the knot with my sports coat all morning. I refuse
to answer and hope he let’s it go and leaves me alone—ZSC#2:
keep quiet. I thought I’d be able to get away with it. I know what
he’s going to say but there’s no avoiding it, so I turn around.

“Limp Dick?” he asks, slapping his forehead. “Fuck me. That’s a
Limp Dick.”

Hey now, hey now—Prof Knot in the house.

The third and final knot—the Limp Dick—is self-explanatory.
The Limp Dick has no loop, but instead folds in an impulsive
movement from the cross-over to the tunnel and funnels through,
dangling down limp-like. Self-explanatory. Limp Dick.

“Mom wouldn’t care about my knot,” I say

“You’re right. She wouldn’t. When’s the last time you saw her?”
Dad slips the car into drive, his foot still on the brake. He makes a
fist and punches the dent in the dashboard in slow motion with a
sound effect of an explosion on impact. “Jeremy. After school. You
and me. Necktie refresher course.”

“You’re such a loser,” I say.

“I’m not the one rocking a Limp Dick,” he says.

“Dad,” I say, “where did you go last night?”

“Spent the night at Liza’s.” He smiles. “Don’t worry so much.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Yes, you do.” Then, raising his hands, he says, “Have a good day,

I raise mine too as our hands turn into fists and we bang them
together like boxers tapping gloves before a fight.


The Byron Hall Catholic High School for Boys—nicknamed The
Hall—is made up of five hallways. There is no second floor. The
school has not changed a lick since Jackson graduated four years

On an aerial sketch of the school, like an architect’s layout, like
the kind Mom used to spread out on the dining room table, The
Hall would look like the number eight on a solar-powered calculator.
Three mini horizontal hallways—one at the top, one in the
middle and one at the bottom of the school. Two long vertical
hallways on the sides—one with even classroom numbers, one with
odd. Each lined with lockers for 1300 students, lockers so skinny
and tight they would barely hold a broom.

According to Jackson, the cafeteria is called the cafe and sits past
the mini hallway at the top of the school. Jackson told me that
Dad said the cafe reminded him a lot of the Marine chow halls at
Fort Drum in New York where he was stationed before deployed
to Vietnam. Simple room to describe, really—blue-jay-blue tiled
walls; eggshell white, linoleum floors; long, boring, brown tables
seating six evenly spaced across an L shape. A sign on the wall reads:
Fire Occupancy 585. I wonder what would happen if all 1300 kids
had a free period at the same time.

When I got my course schedule and locker assignment a few
weeks ago, Jackson volunteered to drive me up to his old stomping
ground, a phrase he likes to use like some kind of old man. He
escorted me around like some big dick hotshot, head held high,
walking with a swaggerly limp. He even got all dressed up—khaki
pants, white button-down shirt, plaid sport coat with an all blue
tie in a Windsor knot. Tool. It was nice, though, to get acquainted
with the layout of the school, showing me all of the hallways, which
were empty as fuck except for custodians pushing mops around
and some people in the front office. No brothers. No students. He
showed me my locker at the end of the even hallway near the cafe
and had me practice the combo. He told me to always make sure
my lock snapped shut. One of the things the upperclassmen like to
do, apparently, is find someone’s lock undone and put it on backwards.
Before we left, he pointed to the vending machines in the
corner of the cafe and said, “I fucked some girl once at a dance over
by the vending machines. Fuck central.”

Great—fuck central.

At my locker, I look around and wait until I feel invisible. I
slip off my shoe, pull out a piece of paper, and read a small piece
of paper with my combination and quickly apply the three numbers
in perfect left-right-left order. The lock snaps open like a broken
jaw. I slip the paper back inside my shoe and my shoe back
on my foot and the lock back on the locker. I wonder if I’m the
only student with a combination cheat sheet in his shoe and a
back-up sheet in his bedroom. My backup is in my closet with my
other secrets. I dump the contents of my book bag into my locker
and pick out my books for the day. Western Civilization. Algebra.
Christian Awareness. English Literature. My locker rattles shut with
a good kick. I twist a couple of times to scramble the combination.

I’ve already forgotten the numbers.

A Brother I haven’t seen yet—a small, Asian man, wearing a long
black tunic and thick black hair slicked back—paces along the back
of the cafe, his hands behind his back, watching the boys at the tables,
waiting for something to happen. I imagine him to be some kind of
drill instructor, ready to scream at kids to get to class on time.

Outside of the cafe is an overhang with metal picnic benches
where kids can chill and eat lunch and congregate like felons on
the prison yard and tell stories that are most certainly all lies—stories
that mainly consist of fucking girls and drugs and sometimes
school work, but mostly fucking girls and drugs. They, the boys, the
young men, they all look exactly the same, unified, like an army—
an academic siege!—with their neckties and wrinkled sports coats,
all crushed together, like a rat king. Then I hear what Jackson calls
the hotness—sweet, honey-like voices—slow and smooth and sexy.
Baby, are they sexy.

A group of four girls in short plaid skirts and white short sleeve,
button-down shirts pass the cafe windows and sit at one of the
metal picnic benches. A gaggle of dudes swarm the girls, sharks
to chum. The guys wear super baggy pants and speak in this faux-
gangsta accent like they thug life, yo, like they’re from the projects,
which is funny because they’re probably all from the wealthiest
suburbs just outside of the city, living in mini-mansions owned
by parents who run PR firms and are politicians. It’s that kind of
school. Retards.

The girls know what they’re doing, how they’re sitting, showing
some serious leg, sitting side-by-side, hips cocked, the ends of the
skirts pulling up past mid-thigh. My God their skin looks smooth
like a baby’s ass, so smooth you want to lick it—the three white
girls with this 2% milk sheen and the black girl a dark chocolate
dream. The black girl might just be a super model—I mean she is
thin and tall with an incredibly angular face in a beautiful way and
her big, bold eyes might as well be singing me a song. It’d be hard
to execute any of the five zombie survival rules with these girls.

The hallways swell inside with dudes stopping, pressing, and
pushing each other to see the girls, like it was their first time. Once
guys find a clear line of vision, they freeze and hold. There has to
be a name for this. Is there a word for it? Can I call it something?
Hotnified? Yes. Yup. That’s it. We’re hotnified. We’re hotnified, watching
the girls.

My dangerous daydream continues, the girls white-pantied and
strutting around in slow motion to a rock-n-roll soundtrack, when
the small, Asian Brother sprints across the cafe, bullet-like, and hurls
himself through the double doors to the outside area. I expect to see
him do some kind of back flip or combo leg-swipe kick or crazy
mid-air Jujitsu. Instead, it looks more like hand-to-hand combat.
He grabs boys at their collars and elbows and flings them away
from the sexy, girl zombies come to infect and devour the Byron
Hall Boys. The boys laugh and slide their bags onto their backs and
go back inside the building. The girls are unphased, unmoved, and
extend their hands to the Asian Brother as an introduction.

I push my way through the crowd of horny high school perverts,
their faces pressed to the doors and windows, practically licking
the glass, the fucks. I edge my way to the front of these boner
boys and head outside, pulled in like some kind of sexual riptide.

The air is dead outside, breezeless, hot and heavy with humidity,
like the girls brought all of this hot, sexy air with them. I sit
at bench and, smooth as all hell, stoop to tie both shoes that are
already double-knotted. The girls, still undressed in my head, circle
the Brother. Seeing girls in short skirts pass by makes my pecker
shiver for sure, so I can only imagine how the entire school of
horny bastards feels.

“Ladies, you must leave,” the small, Asian Brother says. “No girls
on school.” He shakes his head. “Three thirty, then you return.” He
taps the face of his watch. “Then girls on campus.”

“What’s your name, Brother?” a girl asks, a tan girl with dark,
red hair. She looks over at me and without even thinking or anything
I raise my fucking hand and wave to her with a big old goofball
smile on my face. She doesn’t smile back. Fuck me.

“I am Brother Lee,” he says.

“We’re looking for the drama department,” the girl with dark,
red hair says. She hands him a stack of papers. “We are members of
the drama club at Prudence High, Brother Lee, and are working
on the Byron Hall Fall drama, but we need to turn these in before

“You bring after school,” Brother Lee says. “I’m no mailman.”
Brother Lee crosses his arms over his chest. “I look like mailman
to you?”

“No, Brother,” the super model says, “you don’t look like a mailman
at all. They have better uniforms.” She smiles at him.

“I don’t think this is funny,” he says.

She touches his arm and says, “They are our parental permission
slips. We need to give them to Father Vincent Gibbs.”

“You wait to last minute,” Brother Lee says, shaking his head in
disapproval, but even Brother Lee is powerless against the plaid skirt
and teenage shaved legs. “Follow me. No walking.” He rushes down
the sidewalk toward the lecture hall building, herding them away
from the rest of us, like cattle away from a cliff; although in this scenario
the girls seem more like the cliff and the rest of us the cattle.

The girls march single file past Brother Lee who follows quickly
behind them. The girl with the dark red hair looks at me over her
shoulder again, but still without a smile, not at all like in the movies,
like in those RomComs—the movies where two souls are destined
to be together and love one another and get married but for an
hour and a half they keep missing each other, either by chance or
fate, or by some kind of bullshit, until one rainy or sunny or snowy
day their lives crash together and they see each other for the very
first time. The girl passes by the boy and smiles over her shoulder
and the boy returns the smile, maybe adding a wave, but she doesn’t
see the wave because the guy that she’s with is her boyfriend who
distracts her. The smile is what I’m really talking about here, the
smile that says they will meet up again soon. Then, the girl falls out
of love with her fuckneck boyfriend just as the boy is about to settle
for some plain girl who is good enough for him, when in the
nick of time the boy and the girl wind up at a public park feeding
birds, or at a used library browsing books in the same section, or
strolling through a grocery store in the produce section—his hands
squeezing cantaloupe melons as she digs her way through a bin of
avocadoes—and they see each other again, but this time it will be
the last time they see each other like strangers and the first time
they see each other as friends.

Yeah, this girl that I like doesn’t look at me like that in the
slightest. This girl looks at me like she thinks I’m just another pervert,
like she knows I undressed her, got her completely naked in
my head.

Brother Lee escorts the girls to the lecture hall building as they

I walk back into the even hallway of the school by the cafe and
realize I am still smiling and when I stop smiling it makes me feel
sad for some reason. Because she never smiled back.

Meet the Author

J.R. Angelella has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and his short fiction has appeared in various literary journals. He and his wife, Kate Angelella, are co-writing two YA novels for Sourcebooks/Teen Fire, Crossed and Cursed, the first of which will publish in 2012. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. For more information, visit his website at www.jrangelella.com.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Zombie 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Ellonkah More than 1 year ago
I would like to thank Soho Press for letting me read and review this book. Jeremy Barker is a somewhat typical high school freshman. He loves zombie movies, girls make his nose bleed, and he’s not a big fan of authority. His parents are separated and he lives with his dad and Dog. Most of this book follows Jeremy and what goes on inside his head as he starts high school, has troubles with his family, and meets his first girlfriend. One day, Jeremy sees his pinky-less English teacher slip his father a DVD in the school parking lot. The first chance Jeremy gets, he watches the DVD, which contains a strange and gruesome kind of ritual surgery. Jeremy confronts his dad about the DVD, but the confrontation ends up like a lot of scenes in this book – fractured and distracted. Jeremy gets only a few sentences out and his dad switches the conversation to something much more mundane (calling a girl, bad-mouthing Jeremy’s mother, asking him how his day at school was, etc.) I enjoy a good coming-of-age story, but I just kept waiting for something, ANYTHING to actually happen in this one. The author spends almost the entire book on day-to-day Jeremy and never really pushes any kind of plot. “The mystery of the surgery DVD” could have been presented in a much more compelling manner that could have turned this into a serious contemporary page-turner. But it wasn’t, the DVD gets found, then mentioned a time or two to no serious effect, until the end when the “something” finally happens…and unfortunately by then it’s a highly predictable “something.” The language and sexual humor in this book will turn off a lot of readers, so don’t even bother trying to read this if you can’t handle every swear word and homophobic insult that you can think of repeated many times throughout the book. I am not a reader who is sensitive to language, and some of the writing in this book was absolutely hilarious and witty. Unfortunately an equal amount came across as simply trying too hard to be “that way.” I’m curious to see how this author writes his next (adult) novel. I really did like a lot of the things about his style and creativity; I just think that this story wasn’t told quite the way I wanted it to be told.
Captain_Doodles More than 1 year ago
Did I miss something? I bought this book based on all the glowing reviews I read here and at that other book store website (which shall remain nameless). The whole book felt like the author's rough draft. Characters were never fully developed, the "zombie" theme felt forced (like the author only chose that topic because of the current popularity of the Zombie genre) dialogue between characters felt forced and unreal and the ending was awful. What happened to the father? What was he involved in? Sorry J.R. this one felt like a swing and a miss.
SlowMobius More than 1 year ago
Poorly conceived, though generally well written, "Zombie" was a book that had momentum, but no real direction. By the time I got to the end of the book I had so little emotional investment in the characters that I really could not care less how it ended.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book based on the reviews and the description, but they are so wrong. The characters were not developed enough to get me invested in the book and I kept wanting more out of the storyline. I only kept reading waiting for something more to happen but unfortunately it never does.
amyismagic More than 1 year ago
Pretty clever. I got it just cause I like zombies, but I had a good time reading it
BrandieC More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely and interesting find for both zombie movie lovers and lovers of the J.D. Salinger classic "Catcher in the Rye." What begins as the light coming of age story of a zombie-movie buff becomes an intense novel about the aftermath of the Vietnamese War on the U.S. surviving stories - definitely warenting a re-read as you ask yourself "was that real!?!"