The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.

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9781250013842: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.
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Winner of the Commonwealth Regional Prize, Africa
For eleven-year-old Jack Viljee, apartheid Johannesburg is a rational and simple place. Whether he's picking fights with his little sister or fretting over his possibly gay best friend, Jack can always depend upon Susie, his family's black maid, for a word of sympathy and approval. The Viljee household, in its small way, mimics the politics of South Africa. But Jack's little world is upset by the arrival of Percy, Susie's teenaged son. When Percy catches Jack in a shameful moment, Jack discovers that even small acts of revenge can have unimaginable consequences. Subversively smart and unapologetically funny, Jacques Strauss's The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. is a powerful debut from a fearlessly original voice.

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About the Author:

Jacques Strauss is a thirty-year-old South African. He studied philosophy at university, obsessed over Derrida, and now writes reams of corporate copy for a London firm.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE DUBIOUS SALVATION OF JACK V. (Chapter 1)

My family lived in a very nice house, on a very nice street in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It would be easy to get carried away about how nice it all was. If one isn’t careful one might easily sound nostalgic. During the hot afternoons the maids and gardeners sat beneath the trees, chatting in their native tongues. Some had babies strapped to their backs with blankets. The child would lean its head against its mother and doze while she drank a mug of tea or ate mealie meal piled on a plastic plate. Most families in Linden had maids and most of the maids lived in small rooms or cottages built in the backyard. “A dishwashing machine,” a housewife might say. “What would I need with one of those? All you need is a little black magic.”

The dispositions of the maids were as varied as the families they worked for. There were fat Xhosa maids who laughed easily and chatted throughout the day with their friends across six-foot walls. There were skinny Zulu maids, who regarded the Xhosas with suspicion, befriended the Ndebele women and were strict with their spoiled white charges. There were Sotho maids and Venda maids, Tswana maids and Tsonga maids. One by one they disappeared behind high walls and high gates to finish the ironing, make sandwiches for the children returning from school, and start preparing the evening meal.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest that the whole of Johannesburg was nice. It was the northern suburbs, a semi-circular fringe around the city, that were so very nice. The best areas were those that were close to the city center, but not within a drunken stroll of it. The southern suburbs, which completed the circle south of the city, were not very nice at all. They were poor and rough. Least nice, surrounding Johannesburg, were the giant townships where the blacks lived.

In the mapping of the degree and spread of niceness across Johannesburg, one cannot omit seedy Hillbrow in the city center, which offered a small glimpse of what an African city could be. There was a famous record shop that sold banned albums and a famous bookshop that sold banned books. There were prostitutes there too and rent boys. Best of all was Fontana, the greatest food shop in the world. Some enterprising man had created a little of what makes America the most miraculous, wonderful place on earth, for this was the only store open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and served to reassure the good citizens of Johannesburg that should they, at three o’clock on a Wednesday morning, develop an insatiable desire for a chocolate éclair, there was one place, even in dull provincial South Africa, they could go, because even in dull provincial South Africa we needed a sense of possibility. My father used to torture us late at night by saying, “We could drive to Fontana and buy a chocolate éclair,” before sinking back into his chair. The journey into the center of town at this late hour was as ludicrous to contemplate as a trip across the Atlantic.

The only things that seemed ominous in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg were the violent thunderstorms. Anyone who spent a summer there learned to recognize the sudden and oppressive heat that brought about a drowsy listlessness, before the earth darkened and it rained, so heavily, so hard, that brown rivulets formed in the streets as the storm-water drains overflowed. The rainwater soaked our uniforms and schoolbooks and schoolbags. It was glorious to be walking down the street, as if you had jumped into a swimming pool, because it didn’t matter. Within minutes it would be cool and bright and soon the school fields and pavements would be dry. Everything seemed mild and temperate and comfortable. There was an easy rhythm to the comings and goings of our families who had long grown accustomed to a wealth, which, neither spectacular nor extravagant, was sufficient for a comfortable existence replete with bicycles for younger children and cars for older ones, swimming pools and the occasional tennis court.

On Saturday evenings, friends and families gathered around the braai while we did cartwheels and handstands in the pool, before huddling before the open fire with towels draped around our shoulders, picking at the sizzling meat and stuffing handfuls of crisps into our mouths. Then we returned to the dark water illuminated by a submerged light, ignoring our mothers’ pleas not to swim on a full stomach. Our cries and laughter, the splashing and giggling, the smell of meat, the sudden guffaw of adults, might rise up from one property and mingle with the smells and sounds of the houses farther down the road, giving each weekend a celebratory air, the anesthesia of a comfort there for the taking; and though our parents talked about the civil war—“It will happen,” they said; “it is inevitable”—I’m not so sure they ever really believed it, as if by recognizing a thing, by naming it, their prescience would dispel its possibility. And so eleven-year-olds didn’t really believe it either and there was little to dispel the general niceness of it all.

 

I was not, as a child, entirely satisfied with the composition of my family. I had an English mother and an Afrikaans father. It would have been simpler, I thought, to be one thing or the other, so that when my English friends said something mean about Afrikaners I could join in without feeling guilty and without feeling shame that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. Similarly, in the company of hardened Afrikaners, I would not have to convince them that I was as much a Boer as any of them, that my blood was not tainted by a trace of those English poofdas.

Also I thought it unfortunate that I had two sisters. One would have been tolerable, but two was an extravagance on my mother’s part. I arrived in the world with a sister in place who assumed—for she had an imperious nature—her seniority and superiority in all matters. Older brothers were glamorous, far more capable of inducting me into the world of men than my haughty sister Lisa. As I watched my mother’s belly swell month by month, I thought the whole situation might be rectified with the arrival of a younger brother. The only thing better than having an object of veneration was being an object of veneration. I could be the inductor rather than the inductee. As things stood I was a loss to the world of brotherhood. By the age of nine, I had discovered masturbation without the aid of any instruction; none of my friends had—a fact I confirmed with them in adolescence when these things were more freely spoken about—even Aaron, to whom arbitrary nature had gifted a generously proportioned man dick, only started jacking off at fourteen and then only when we told him what to do, told him to persist, “until something happens, Aaron.” After that he progressed quickly and was soon proselytizing the joy of sticking your thumb up your arse—a regular little Jack Horner—but still. This proved, surely, that I was instinctively primed to lead in the way of masculinity. Older brothers intuited the necessary information and passed it on. I knew I would make a very superior sort of older brother. I mean superior to other older brothers, not necessarily superior to my imaginary sibling—for in my mind, brothers were simply younger or older versions of myself. Perfect, I thought, in every way. So Rachel’s arrival in the world was a blow. Rachel was imperfect in almost every way. I even checked again when my mother brought her home, in case she’d been mistaken; perhaps the crucial appendage had become lodged in her not inconsiderable rolls of fat; perhaps it was inverted and would, much to everyone’s relief, eventually pop out.

My older sister, Lisa, had a horsey-faced friend called Nicola, who slapped me around quite a lot—she was mean because she had an ugly birthmark on the side of her face from which sprouted coarse black hairs, and because her parents were alcoholics in the hysterical sense (English alcoholics), which meant a lot of screaming and shouting and bad behavior and divorce. And my younger sister had a posh little friend called Julia—pronounced Joo-leee-aah—who said “couch” instead of “settee,” as in “Come here and sit on the cowch,” and lived in Westcliffe, toward which all the old money gravitated, as opposed to Sandton, which was for the Jews. Not all the Jews, of course; the kugels mainly and their bagel husbands. The moderate Jews lived in Greenside and the real Jews, the Orthodox ones, the-ringlets-and-hats-and-not-switching-on-lights-on-the-Sabbath Jews, lived in Yeoville and marched in mournful procession to synagogue.

Julia’s arrival caused some consternation in the Viljee household because she used words that my mother, inexplicably, did not approve of. For instance, when Julia asked to use the “loo,” my sister reported the matter to my mother who had to perform a prompt about-face to conceal her irrational abhorrence for the word. “Don’t be so silly. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘loo,’” she said to my bemused younger sister. There were a great many words my mother disapproved of. People did pees and poos in toilets. They most certainly did not do number ones or twos in the lav or the WC. A person might be excused for making a bripsy, but never a fart. Boys had penises and girls had vaginas. Both boys and girls had bottoms. Only people who lived in Brixton or Mayfair had fannies, piels, butts, bums, totties, or asses.

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, voël, which means “bird.” Calling your cock a voël was a very Afrikaans and...

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