Not too long ago, short stories were relegated to specialty magazines or book-length collections. Want to read a single story? You had to buy the book or subscribe to the magazine.
Now, thanks to e-books, stories of any length now have a home, and this has led to a rebirth of the short story as a form of art and entertainment. I’m happy as a writer — I’ve been on a novella-writing kick lately. And I’m glad as a reader too — sometimes you don’t want to invest too much time in a story. Sometimes you want to dive in, read to the end, and walk away, satisfied.
Satisfied is what I felt after finishing Jess Walter’s zombie-themed story Don’t Eat Cat.
First, a warning to zombie aficionados. Don’t Eat Cat is a zombie tale in the loosest sense. His zombies aren’t the mindless, swarming re-animated dead. They’re self-aware — victims of a party drug that carries zombie-like side effects, such as white-to-translucent skin, mental numbness, and a taste for living flesh, especially small animals (hence Don’t Eat Cat).
Second, for the animal lovers out there, no animals are actually eaten in the course of this story. So don’t let the title dissuade you.
The plot: following a confrontation with a zombie barista in a Starbucks, Owen decides to seek out his ex-girlfriend, Marci, who willingly consumed the drug and left two years earlier before the zombie effects set in. That’s it. Not too much happens in this story.
This is not a criticism. Walter packs his pages with humor and tragedy. In a limited word count, Walter deftly creates a world of the near-future that is overloaded, cynical, and nearly broken. Walter’s prose is clean, lean and fluid.
His protagonist is a good traveling companion. From the opening scene in the zombie-staffed Starbucks to the sudden end, Owen is impatient, moody, and thoroughly relatable. We know just enough about him to willingly go along for the ride.
But Don’t Eat Cat is not perfect (I have yet to find a story or book that is). These imperfections can be simply summed up: the story is too short. I wanted more. I wanted more of Owen and Marci. I wanted more of the hilariously nightmarish world. I wanted more of the negative effects of the zombie/humans. And when the story ended abruptly, I was left wishing there was more to come.