Tuesday 8 November 2011

'When I was eleven...'

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V.
by Jaques Strauss

Being absolutely honest, I wouldn't have read this book (which came en spec from the publisher) if it hadn't been for a very favourable review at the ever-reliable Asylum. Even with that it languished on the TBR shelf until such time as a genuine pause appeared in my reading schedule (yeah, it's that bad) and I found myself finally taking a punt. I'm glad I did, books that are easily entertaining, witty, political and populated with sharp characters are a joy when they plop in your lap at the right time and it is the seeming ease of this book which makes it such a pleasurable read. The fact that it has received so little newspaper review space even with a big-name publisher is a little saddening, especially when I think about some of the books that have received lots of undeserved column inches (some from the same big-name publisher), but that's what us book bloggers are here for I guess.

The novel is a confessional from Jack Viljee; half English, half Afrikaans resident of 'a very nice street' in Johannesburg, looking back on the definitive moment from his childhood. As an eleven year old during the final years of the Apartheid regime in South Africa Jack is able to give an interesting perspective on the shifting politics of a country about to undergo momentous change. It is his dual ancestry however that provides the real interest for it allows him to point out the differences between the two cultures, their attitudes towards the black population and the way in which Jack's own mixed-race status, if we dare call it that, leaves him in an uncomfortable no-man's land between the two. A prologue sets the tone, several paragraphs each beginning 'When I was eleven...' and informing us of the preoccupations of any boy heading towards his teenage years. This is the period when he 'was stupid enough to try to have sex with a shampoo bottle' or 'old enough to know that peeing in the bath was disgusting but young enough not to care and do it anyway' but it is also the time '...I betrayed Susie, our housekeeper, my friend, my second mother, and perhaps in other significant ways, my first.'

The closeness of the relationship he enjoys with Susie is highlighted and indeed jeopardised by the arrival of her own son into the household but I don't need to go into any plot details as such, that isn't where the real enjoyment of this novel lies. Jack is an engaging, funny and perceptive narrator (particularly from his retrospective viewpoint - of which more later) and the sheer scope of his observations mean that this novel, which feels so light and easy to read, is actually packed full interest. By making Jack's 'distinguishing characteristic' the fact that he is half English and half Afrikaans, 'that I could slip unnoticed between the two peoples like a spy,' Strauss has lots of fun pointing up the differences between the two sides of his family, the Afrikaaner's obsessions with suffering and food for example, and creates a fabulous character in grand-matriarch Ouma who 'had the required quota of grief to make most quirks permissible; mild anti-Semitism, mild racism - nothing rampant or unseemly, nothing undignified.' It is Ouma's admiration for the 'debonair' Pik Botha that allows Jack to make one of his telling observations about the time when Pik Botha, whilst overseas, said that he would be happy to serve under a black president, only to change his tune when back in front of his president PW Botha.

It was a little bit like saying 'fuck' in front of your friends - for a while it seemed like a very brave, very manly thing to do, but unless you were prepared to say it in front of your mother it didn't mean much at all.

This kind of comment can only be made by an adult looking back on their childhood and is so much more perceptive and interesting than anything the child themselves might say at the time. This is why it remains a mystery to me why authors are so seduced by child narration. In the same way Jack can tell us about the very real pains of growing up: the embarrassment of growing awareness; that your parents don't necessarily like all their friends, that the relationship as it stands between whites and blacks makes you feel awkward and embarrassed in a way that it doesn't to your parents and some of your friends, that your desires can be surprising. Jack's burgeoning sexuality is rather brilliantly handled, allowing moments of comedy and painful revelation. Young boy's willy obsession achieves due prominence and a unique detail from Jack's dual-luanguage skills.

I guess around eleven we all thought that to coax our dicks out of hibernation we should stop calling them 'willies' and start referring to them as 'cocks', but my mother detested this word almost as much as the Afrikaans equivalent, vöel, which means 'bird'. Calling your cock a vöel was a very Afrikaans and manly thing to do. It was enough to make my willy look bigger and my voice sound deeper.

The selfishness of children is something of a recurring theme given even greater significance by Jack's privileged status. He has something of an obsession with deformity and disability (perhaps this comes from having a neighbourhood prosthetics shop) even finds 'something alluring about these broken children with missing arms and missing legs.'

And I wished that, for the afternoon, I might be without a limb too, so that I could be part of this orgy of tragedy, of heartbroken but proud parents, of the paraphernalia, the prosthetic limbs, the wheelchairs, the crutches, like Tiny Tim, the epicentre of sympathy and tragedy and poetry. 

Jack has a tendency towards the grand gesture, particularly when it might atone for the guilt he feels for certain actions or simply for being white. These again come about from his privileged position so that the purchase of an ice-cream from the weathered (black) ice-cream salesman on the beach, or the donation of his pocket money to a homeless woman would allow him to 'act like a God.' And this all ties in with one of the great lessons he learnt from his childhood on the school visit to the Natural History Museum. The exhibit of a caveman family being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger contains the rather graphic image of skull-piercing teeth to drive home the point that our survival 'was dependent on the suffering of some other innocent creature.'

...that life is an economy of suffering so that when we die, like my grandmother, we are an accumulation of those compromises, bones and loose skin, mildly anti-Semitic, mildly racist, nothing rampant or unseemly, having suffered and caused suffering, dying, I suppose, with a small credit but completely ravaged by all the exchanges.

Jack's story is a reckoning, but a hugely entertaining one. My only worry when reading it was that the ease in its telling was due to Strauss mining his own childhood for all the sparkling details, would that mean that his next novel would suffer from the depleting stocks of autobiographical riches? I have no idea whether this novel is in any way autobiographical and the only way to find out whether Strauss has real legs as a novelist is to read what comes next. I, for one, look forward to finding out what that is (and won't take so long to get around to it next time) and can only hope that these thoughts on a hugely enjoyable debut might tempt you to do the same.


Max Cairnduff 22 November 2011 at 15:49  

I saw this at The Asylum and noted it then. It's definitely on my to be read list, but I'm pleased to see that confirmed with your review.

The first two quotes both struck me as well observed, and the part about Jack's tendency to grand gestures felt human and true. My only concern is the one you flag, is it all autobiographical and so leaving little room for a second novel? I guess we'll find out, but in the meantime it's one I'm looking forward to.

Besides, it'll make a nice contrast to the Lauren Beukes South African SF I read a little while back

William Rycroft 23 November 2011 at 07:27  

A very enjoyable read this one Max and the one salve I might apply to that worry about what comes next is a quick look at Strauss' website where he mentions some of his favourite writers. Coetzee, Spark, Roth....yummy.

Max Cairnduff 26 November 2011 at 16:50  

Definitely good signs all. Thanks again for the review and pushing it up my list (which sounds painful now I type it out).

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