Review: The Panama Laugh

By Rebecca Stefoff

Roche, Thomas. The Panama Laugh. Night Shade Books (September 2011). 300 pp. $14.99.

Like the bastard offspring of a drug-spiked three-way between Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Clancy and Raymond Chandler, The Panama Laugh packs a gonzo attitude, a load of military-tech terminology, and a world-weary, wisecracking narrator into a hallucinatory, ultraviolent tour of the apocalypse, a journey that begins with a fistfight on a Panama beach and ends with a desperate assault on a San Francisco fortress that might house the last few normal folk on Earth: pornographers, hacktivists, airship enthusiasts, and doomsday cultists.

It’s a zombie novel.

And its main literary antecedent is The Divine Comedy, that 14th-century tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, studded with vignettes of earthly life and the moral wretchedness of mankind. In Panama Laugh, Roche’s protagonist is a “piracy interdiction specialist” and all-around mercenary named ‘Dante Bogard’, whose extreme self-control has earned him the nickname ‘Frosty’. Early on, Dante says that he has done some “really, really bad things”, adding that he might have to reveal them, someday. Sure enough, that revelation rolls around in due time, but by then, we already know a lot about Dante and can guess the rest.

For years, Dante has worked for a shadowy, Halliburton-like firm of military and security contractors called ‘Bellona Industries’. When he wakes up naked in the Panama jungle, marked with signs of medical torture, holding a freshly-fired gun, and surrounded by dead Bellona agents from whom he’s apparently escaped, he realizes that his relationship with Bellona’s owners – Virgil Amaro and and his apostolically-named sons – has entered a dark, new phase. He also discovers that he has no memory of the last five years.

The first piece of Dante’s missing memory to return is of the laughers, chuckleheads, monsters: victims of a plague known as the ‘Panama Laugh’ because it originated in a clandestine lab in the Darien Gap. The plague turns people into living dead who laugh and titter ceaselessly, who hunger for the flesh of the uninfected, and who can’t be stopped except by a bullet to the brain. So determined and indestructible are these zombies that the novel abounds in descriptions of bloated, rotting torsos pulling themselves along with broken arms, or of bodiless heads snapping and straining to tear off a chunk of Dante, even though they lack teeth, tongues and throats.

It’s more fun than it sounds. Really. The sort-of-scientific explanation for The Panama Laugh involves venality, virology, and the Rapture-addled Amaros’ dream of immortality, which of course has gone horribly awry. Allusions to such things as the Paradise Life Extension company, the Purgatorio porn studio, and a refrigerated suitcase code-named ‘Salvation’ buttress the Divine Comedy structure of Dante’s quest without swamping it. Dante’s voice is sharp and smart, and if the banter between characters isn’t always as clever as it thinks it is, and one or two of the author’s repetitive stylistic tricks get old fast, there are humour and even compassion amid the gore, the goo and the rapid-fire pop-culture namechecks. The laughers are old-school Night of the Living Dead-style shamblers, but the novel races along like one of the nimble infected from 28 Days Later.

Familiar zombie tropes underlie The Panama Laugh. People en masse are shuffling drones, voracious consumers, savage beasts at heart. The monsters are our fears of death incarnated. Yet, the novel doesn’t belabour these elements. Instead, it hints at the appalling similarities between the brutal, murky world in which Dante and his employers have operated for years – a world of black markets and black ops, shadow wars and secret powers – and the horrific new reality of a world infested by zombies. The Panama Laugh puts us inside the head of an unlikely hero as he fights (and fights and fights) for answers to a series of questions, from “What happened to me?” to “What did I do?” to “Can I save the world?” If apocalyptic thrillers are your thing, and you have a high tolerance for the anatomically icky, join Dante and his well-armed sidekicks for the ride.

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