Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas
Night Shade Books/Wildside Press
Available in trade hardcover and paperback
Every so often a novel comes along that you have to admire for the sheer unapologetic audacity of its central conceit — Joe Lansdale's Zeppelins West, Dan Simmons's The Crook Factory, William Kotzwinkle's Trouble in Bugland, and Nicolas Meyer's The West End Horror are four that readily spring to mind — but too often do these types of novels (the four mentioned are exceptions to the rule) offer little more than that central conceit.
Such is, refreshingly, not the case with Nick Mamatas's first novel, Move Under Ground, a wild, energetic, suspenseful, and often genuinely funny take on an idea that is so simple as to be ingenious: Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs do battle with the Great Cthulhu.
You could almost hate a guy who comes up with an idea this good.
The humor in Move stems from the efforts of Kerouac, Cassady, and Burroughs to convince others of the monsters that are threatening mankind; known for their drinking, their drug use, and their wild imaginations, the warnings of the Beat Generation Three are dismissed as hallucinations that have emerged from damaged brains. The opening sequence, wherein Kerouac witnesses Old R'lyeh rising out of the Pacific, manages to be hallucinatory, frightening, and hysterical all at once. Kerouac — at this point in his life an alcoholic and paranoid cult hero — at first can't accept what he's seeing as being real…but that changes quickly enough.
One of the problems that this novel has faced and will, I think, continue to face, is the accusation on the parts of reviewers and readers alike of being a Kerouac pastiche; and I have to admit that, when I first began reading Move, I was afraid that Mamatas would succumb to the temptation to imitate Kerouac's mesmerizing rhythms, gloriously skewed imagery, and sentence structures that at times make Faulkner look restrained. In the early pages, it appears that's what Mamatas is doing, but hang on: trying to imitate Kerouac's writing style is about as smart as trying to imitate Mark Twain's — which is to say, no intelligent writer would ever attempt it for fear of looking foolish — and Mamatas knows this. The first-person voice used throughout Move is not the voice of Kerouac the novelist, but, rather, Kerouac the burn-out case; it is a separate voice, but nonetheless holds echoes of the novelist's (particularly when that voice was at its pinnacle in The Dharma Bums). It's a tricky balancing act in that if the writer falters even once (regardless of how minor a faltering), not only will the spell be broken, but the reader's suspension of disbelief will be destroyed.
Mamatas never falters here, and as a result Move Under Ground reads like the actual journal of a once-great man whose sanity, self-respect, and spirituality have slipped over the edge and are desperately trying to claw their way back to level ground; this novel is, to my mind, a triumph of voice.
But what further emerges is the respect Mamatas holds for both Kerouac's work and that of H.P. Lovecraft; Mamatas has done his research, and though that research was undoubtedly extensive, here it used sparingly and to startling effect — particularly in the final fourth of the novel, wherein unexpected elements from the Cthulhu Mythos and Kerouac's own work enter the picture to move events toward the damnedest — and most logically justifiable — deus ex machina finale I've read in years.
Move Under Ground is that rare beast; a first novel that not only has a envy-inducing central conceit, but carries through that conceit with confidence, skill, and amazing brevity (Move clocks in at less than 200 pages). This novel succeeds on every level; as a character study, as a period piece, as a tense and frightening horror story, and as an adventure story of "the road".
I only wish I'd come up with the idea first — something I think a lot of people are going to be saying when they finish reading this novel.