Nick Mamatas has turned the zombie genre on its head—or rather into its head. His first-person protagonist is Billy Kostopolos, an alcoholic writer now working in the San Francisco Bay Area as a driller. His job as such is to dispatch the reanimated dead with said power tool and to work the bereaved through the initial trauma of witnessing his process. What may seem prosaic in theory turns out in practice to be 250 pages of harsh poetry.
Many reviewers will tell you the novel isn’t really about zombies. You’re damn right it’s about zombies. Neither Billy nor Mr. Mamatas would’ve cared enough to write it otherwise. Sure there are greater dangers, earthquakes and the living among them, but these are intermittent. The nuance is that zombies are ubiquitous to the point where one need only care when they become a threat. The novel stands apart by what it does. It deals a lot with writing. On that note, anyone who gives a rat’s rump about the craft should read Mamatas’s Starve Better (Apex Publications, 2011). Those who have will recognize where autobiographical impulses have bled through. Like the author, Billy types with two fingers and has lobbed his erstwhile self from one coast of the US to another, scribbling his way to sanity and sustenance along the way.
But in the context of The Last Weekend, the putting of ink to page takes deeper purpose as a method of record. Though Billy might be the last to admit it—“History’s written by the winners…and there ain’t any winners anymore, so it’s the end of history”—he is an historian. For a self-deprecating barfly who spends the better part of his days nursing hopes of a half-lit future, writing is the most reliable form of memory, as evidenced when he shares his recollections of 9/11 with cinematic clarity but has vaguest impressions of the zombie apocalypse. Like any writer worth his booze, he is a coveter and transformer of experiences all the same.
The writing itself is snappy and delicious. Mamatas navigates even the most vulgar passages with enough turns of phrase to keep your feet gyroscopically centered. And there is much to offend in this story. At least one reader out there, from behind a virtual goalie mask, has slap-shot accusations of sexism. But The Last Weekend is no more sexist for Billy’s hormonal rants than Star Wars: The Force Awakens is feminist for having a female protagonist. Billy is the first to admit his inadequacies when it comes to women. Romantic failures are what drove him to the bottle in the first place. The smokescreen of his explicit talk proves that the greatest threat to humanity, reanimated or not, is ego, and further underscores the hard truth that patriarchy is as much a question of personal ideology as systemic violence.
In any case, by dint of his lackluster profession we can hardly expect Billy to be the shining star atop the gender tree. I doubt you’ll like Billy as a representative of his species, but you can trust him as a writer. And while he’s exponentially more likely to spew Henry Miller than Luce Irigaray, women are his strongest allies. Case in point is the conspiratorially minded Alexa, who recruits herself into his milieu of one in the hopes of breaking into City Hall, where she believes government secrets await. It is in pursuit of that information where this synopsis ends, should you wish to pick through the rubble yourself.
Is The Last Weekend a masterpiece? No. Neither does it want to be. Will it linger after you close the back cover? Yes. And if that isn’t the sign of good writing, and of a writer who has all the right tools strapped to his belt, then you might as well take a drill to my head.
(ARC kindly provided by Skyhorse Publishing.)