Jacques Strauss: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.

It occurs to me that I have developed a prejudice against new novels, particularly English language ones. This might be because I have had much reading pleasure lately from older reissued titles or books in translation: both types must have passed the editorial selection test at least twice. I give up on new books more quickly, daring them to do something new with the form. Yet at the same time, often when I give them a chance I continue to get pleasure from them. Here is a perfect example.

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. almost challenges the reader to put it down before opening it, with its irksome title, equal parts quirk and mock-retro. In fact it makes reference to a trilogy of novels by Afrikaans writer Etienne Leroux, but to the reader coming to it cold, such an idiosyncratic title can seem like the literary equivalent of a novelty tie, worn in order to fake a personality that is otherwise absent. (The jaunty cover enhances this effect.) The second cause for concern is that this is a novel about an eleven-year-old boy, and if Room and Pigeon English taught us nothing else (and they didn’t), it’s that we should be wary of child narratives. In fact, I needn’t have worried, since the prologue – with nineteen paragraphs each beginning “When I was eleven” – makes it clear that this is a story about the narrator’s childhood, written by him when older, looking back. We are more in the territory of True Grit, with wit and aplomb, and with no need to handicap the narrative voice by artificial restrictions.

What Jack V. does have in common with the others mentioned above is its potential for popular success: it’s a confident and straightforward narrative in a well-achieved voice which gets its points across in fewer than 250 pages. Within the parameters of conventional literary fiction, what more could we ask for?

Jack Viljee is a South African with a burden of guilt to unload about how, at the age of eleven, he “betrayed Susie, our housekeeper, my friend, my second mother.” He also, along the way, has things to share about life in South Africa under the last days of apartheid (though that word does not feature in the book). Mandela’s release may have been just a year away, but there were still housewives in Jack’s “very nice street” in Johannesburg who would say, “A dishwashing machine? What would I need with one of those? All you need is a little black magic.” Jack’s family has Susie, whom Jack “loved … with the same possessive intensity that I loved my mother.” Susie is presented with the greatest sympathetic vigour in a narrative that is full of vibrancy: at times I was reminded of a less baggy John Irving. I consider Irving to be whatever the opposite is of an acquired taste – he was the first ‘grown-up’ writer I read, at the age of seventeen, and I still cherish my memories of Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but haven’t read him in years and don’t expect to again. Nonetheless, he has imaginative sympathy in spades, together with a knack for creating memorable sub-grotesques, which is what Strauss manages here, without falling into Irving’s habit of believing that every character deserves such attention. So we have novelties here like a family of four brothers, each of whom loses an arm in the same accident, or a shop selling prosthetic limbs, which are memorable but not overplayed or forced into a central purpose.

Jack’s struggle is between his Afrikaner and English ancestry on his father’s and mother’s sides respectively. He feels himself to be neither one thing nor the other. Fortunately, this gives him the chance to display the differences between the two cultures. (The English happily cremate their dead, for example, while Afrikaners “preferred to buy family plots in which you heaped up your dead, piled them up as evidence of your suffering.”) As he tells his story, Jack reveals himself to the reader in a knowing character portrait; but for him, his self-awareness just makes things worse. While the family of his friend Petrus are “completely at ease with black people milling about doing their bidding,” Jack is not. “But black people didn’t seem to like me any better for my awkwardness. They didn’t appreciate that I found the situation embarrassing.” The book is full of such just-so observations: the confusions of childhood sexuality – one moment making light of paedophilia, the next feeling shame at the extent of its own desires – are skewered perfectly. Given the setting, it is particularly good on how a child, becoming an adult, acquires an understanding of political realities and grows into, or away from, its parents’ views. (Economic sanctions against South Africa are noted by Jack, for example, because He-Man toys cost “at least ten rand and every time the president said something that upset people they would cost even more.”) This is where Strauss’s decision to make the narrative retrospective rather than contemporaneous is most clearly justified, as it enables subtleties and contradictions to be explored that would require too much smelting and welding in a child’s voice. In true immature fashion, Jack is sometimes more concerned with being right than doing right.

When Jürgen told me his father had cancer, I assured him that it was nothing to be concerned about – ‘People get cancer all the time. It’s like getting a bad cold’ – but when we learnt that his father had died, I thought it would have been better to tell Jürgen what I suspected all along. […] His father is going to die, I thought, and none of us are going to know what to say to him. It’s going to be very embarrassing.

Above all, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. is funny; both witty and ironic. Jack hates to be reminded that Susie “didn’t stay with us because she loved me … She stayed with us because it was her job.” The irony is that to stop her being their servant, to give her her freedom, he may end up having to do something terrible to her. Around all this cultural specificity, more general principles are touched on (“one could only conclude that humanity, rather than a ballast against the arbitrary, was … its very agent”) which feed back into the story.

If the real test of a first novel is not whether it is an unassailable masterpiece, but whether it suggests that the author’s next one will be worth reading, then Strauss succeeds and more. However my initial admission of prejudice against such novels might raise the issue of why I read this book in the first place. The answer is that someone tweeted a link to Strauss’s website, which made me laugh, and I was won over. In addition, he namechecks many of the right authors – Spark, Coetzee, Roth – though one might reflect that these are big names for a new writer to invoke. Still, they too were debut novelists once.


  1. So Jacques Strauss has eight friends! Eight! He is clearly being far too fussy, surely everyone these days they can count on at least five hundred thousand individuals that they know intimately.

    I like the sound of this – great black humour, great website (looks very professional) and very enticing review.

  2. His publishers sent me a proof copy to read, and I too was sceptical about another child narrated novel. But that soon diminshed upon reading, for here was a novel that had the same charm and wit of ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ and ‘Vernon God Little.’ It is certainly far superior to ‘Room’ and is packed with the swagger of a confident writer who knows how to entertain and engage a reader.

  3. You’ve convinced me to extract this from the pile that I was going to donate to Oxfam. The publishers sent me a copy and for all the reasons that you point out — the title and (yet another) child narrator — made me think it wasn’t for me. But it sounds like a good read.

  4. Wow! I doubt I could ask for anything nicer on the day of publication. I’m grinning from ear to ear (and looking into the possibility of having this review turned into wall paper for my lounge). You are right, of course, about the Leroux reference – perhaps a little indulgent – and a fair few people were not won over by the title.

    Thanks for taking a punt on this novel – I am absolutely delighted. And James, thank you very much for you kind words – I am so pleased you enjoyed it.

    (A regular but normally silent reader of Asylum)

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. Jacques, you must be a little sad though at all the good work Oxfam will no longer be able to do now that kimbofo is not sending her copy to them?

  6. John – This novel had perked my interest, yet I too was wary. After reading your excellent review I immediately switched acreens and ordered it.

  7. Well you have convinced me that I have to read this now John. Though am I about to embarrass myself by saying I actually found the cover really, really eye catching? I think that and the title would make me stop and stare, and even if I then thought ‘hmmm’, its done half the job. It might have a slight gimickiness (is that a word) to it, but at least it stands out from the off, and after your review it would seem rightly so.

    Yes, this one I have to give a whirl.

    Thanks for the St Aubyn advice too btw!

  8. Sold!

    Despite the anti-child-narrator-prejudice, about which I have absolutely no vested interest. Can’t stand a world distilled through anything other than an ennui-glazed, super-literate … distillery myself.

    As you say, the author-website alone makes this book tempting. Your review – and in particular the idea of a character compromised by his own self-awareness – will make me head off and buy it now.


  9. Your expectation of new books to present something completely revolutionary in literature is well understood. Expectations of progression are a piece of gold not held by many people in the world today, or not by people who have enough guts to use them, for that matter…
    So, my good friend, why don’t you write the “new book” that you seek?

    PS: If you would like, please check out my blog at http://meditationsofateenagephilosopher.blogspot.com/. There, the themes of literature are adapted to my personal life and philosophically interpreted for any person want to discover them. Carpe Diem.

  10. I have to admit a narrative where an adult looks back on their childhood interests me more than a child narrator (though in a very different genre the underappreciated Joe R Lansdale pulls the child narrator trick off in his The Bottoms).

    John Irving played a similar role for me too. As a teenager I read them as grown up fiction, which they are, but I’m not tempted to return to them as I am other works I read at the same time like Something Happened.

    I hate the cover and title (well, vaguely dislike but this is the internet so hate’s the correct word) but it sounds fun and clever and not too long (vulgar I know but it is a factor for me).

    My main concern actually is that Strauss mixed Lagavulin with Coke. Unless we’re talking white powder I’m not sure I can read a book by a man willing to commit such a monstrous crime. Rarely has a man been wronged as much as poor Leopold. My heart goes out to him.

  11. It occurs to me that since I have Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City currently quite high on the to be read pile this might make a nice companion piece to that. Tempting.

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