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.