Few people outside of South Africa, or indeed the Western Cape, or indeed under 30, will know much about Rashied and Rashaad Staggie, the author's uncFew people outside of South Africa, or indeed the Western Cape, or indeed under 30, will know much about Rashied and Rashaad Staggie, the author's uncles. At a time when the country was undergoing massive social upheaval and the transition to democracy was constantly on the verge of imploding, all eyes were focussed on the black townships where the situation was at its most volatile.
Scant heed was paid to the coloured* townships because it was traditionally accepted would not get involved because they occupied a murky socio-political-racial no-man's land.
So few people noticed when the Cape Flats descended into a drug and gangsterism inferno, in no small part fuelled by the power struggles between the Hard Livings and Americans gangs. Rashaad and Rashied Staggie formed the head of the powerful Hard Livings gang, and they operated with impunity under the eyes of the security forces.
Rashaad was eventually the victim of mob justice - beaten, shot and burned to death by members of PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs). PAGAD started out as a community policing forum by members of the community who were sick and tired of the gangsters acting with impunity and peddling drugs to their children. Initially their tactics involved picketing drug houses and houses of known gangsters, but they became more radical, to the point where they would set a gangsters house alight and shoot them as they fled the burning building.
Rashied Staggie was later convicted of (a successful) burglary of a police station armoury and is due for release later this year.
PAGAD's activities were eventually stopped by the security forces but they still operate in a very diluted and (supposedly) legal fashion.
Why tell you this?
Well, Jason Staggie cannot escape this shadow looming large over his family and himself and it is apparent in this novel which is a barely disguised memoir, despite the fact that it is fictionalised and that he takes pains to not project too much of himself onto the central character. It is also telling that (very short) Chapter 2 is dedicated to describing how and why his character has been named after the messianic figure of Nelson Mandela
The story revolves around the cycle of catharsis, redemption and The Fall. These themes manifest themselves, and represent, several things that, one feels, the author regards as being pre-destined and inescapable. Coloured identity, drug-use, love, friendship, all these things fall under his microscope, although whether intentional I don't know. I might be doing him a grave disservice but it feels like this novel forms part of his own personal catharsis and everything else is incidental.
His central character seems tainted by his circumstances, as though none of it is his fault, and falls prone to cycles of depression and lucidity. The best way it seems, to get out of this hole, is to go on drug-fuelled bender and commit any number of salacious, hedonistic acts with his equally fucked-up tjommies.**
Eventually, he realises that the real kick he gets is from the risk-taking. And so he devises this game which is essentially the ultimate game of dare, and convinces his friends to participate. The higher the stakes, the more enjoyable the rush.
The game goes well until he falls off the wagon when his girlfriend admits to having a one-night stand and he proceeds to go on the mother of all benders lasting several weeks. When the money for the drugs runs out he is forced to return to sobriety.
In search of reality he seeks out his tjommies and the game, only to find that his friends have developed social consciences and gone all militant, upping the stakes of the game to extremely dangerous levels all in the name of revolution. Things escalate to a point where it has to inevitably go all Pete Tong and the PAGAD analogue is complete, although, whether intentional or not, again I don't know.
Whilst writing this review, I found myself both not disliking and disliking the novel a bit more. There is nothing to like about this book.
It will not give you a warm feeling inside. Certain images will get stuck in your head and you will lose your appetite. It might even give you bad dreams.
It is also not terribly written.
But it is not Last Exit to Brooklyn or Junkie. Not that these are masterpieces, but to pull this shit off you've got to be able to write and I'm afraid Mr. Staggie doesn't have the ability, yet.
*in the South African vernacular "coloured" means mixed race although it is more accurate to describe it as a culture as you can get white and black coloureds too.
Vulnerable/damaged/feisty female protagonist with a sharp tongue and bravado to match? Check. Ex-homicide cop of an ethnic persuasion haunted by an unsVulnerable/damaged/feisty female protagonist with a sharp tongue and bravado to match? Check. Ex-homicide cop of an ethnic persuasion haunted by an unsolved case, a shadow of his former self, on the wagon? Check. Thoroughly detestable antagonist with no back-story? Check.
And that's where the clichés stop.
While the above may be true, each character has a unique voice which helps drive the story along like a careening freight truck. Even the incidental characters are well-crafted and one feels play an essential part in the narrative. A strong story like this can sometimes threaten to lose its main characters and so perhaps a little bit of familiarity in the roles can be a useful thing, a bit like a road-marker indicating 15km to the next rest-stop.
The story is tightly woven, although it doesn't feel like that at first. With time-travelling being a central device, one struggles at first in trying to keep up with the various strands, however, the author manages to bring them all together quite consummately, without it ever seeming botched or manufactured.
Time-travelling stories are tricky by nature but the book deals with it in such a neat manner without there being any glaring errors, and without sanitising the dirtiness that it causes.
The last few chapters were a real treat. At some point you realise that the pace has accelerated and you are hurtling through one critical event after another without any notion of what's going to happen next. And the surprises keep coming. I thought the book had ended twice before it actually did.