From Zeerust to Amsterdam, The Big Stick recreates the bitter-sweetness of Giovanni’s Room in an era of George Michael haircuts and crack cocaine. James Baldwin’s masterwork of gay literature played out in Paris, capital of fifties decadence and corruption; De Nooy relocates to Holland in the late eighties. Again we accompany a young man on a journey of self-discovery, again experience the polar magnetisms of yearning and censure. But The Big Stick has a richly experimental feel that delivers far beyond the slender promise of its page-count. Disguised as yet another stab at crime fiction, the narrative soon deviates into multiple voices, times and places, and before long the burden of life robs the “murder mystery” of all its tyrannical urgency.
Narrated by the elusive JR Deo, a character link with De Nooy’s debut, The Big Stick follows two travellers: mother and son, South African born, Europe-bound. “Princess” is a naif, incongruous in his khaki anorak and exaggerated Afrikaner lisp. In no time he becomes the darling of Reguliersdwarsstraat (“one long, paved catwalk, where every glance caught an image lovingly clipped from a glossy magazine”). The same accent, on the other hand, has less charm on the tongue of Alma, his mother, who comes to Amsterdam in search of understanding, forgiveness, finality: her son’s body in a casket. Alma is at once a figure of empathy and a target for well-deserved hatred. Her and her community’s tragic misunderstanding of her son’s condition”, for which the only cure is exile, is the theme that anchors the novel. Perhaps her arrival in Amsterdam, her wanderings in the footsteps of her estranged son, grant her the means to overcome her prejudices, but De Nooy’s craft strives to avoid moral simplicity. Unflinching, he presents bare-faced, unapologetic racism (Alma’s metaphor for her son’s “polished ebony” lover, Thierry, is that of a dog “walking round the house on its back legs”) and homophobia; there is no sudden revelation, only a gradual unfolding of the spirit.
For some readers, the dizzying switches in tone – now earthy, now elegiac – tense and address may prove distracting, with a special mention for the second-person intimacy of JR Deo’s narration (“You dragged your big brown suitcase”, “You were thirsty”). However, these instalments swiftly become the hook in your palate, irresistible. Further, the story brims over with laughter. Two homoerotic donkeys star in a Herman Charles Bosman-esque short story, and Alma and son’s grammar (“I beg yours?”) is rendered with exquisite tenderness. In a brief interview with Russell Clarke at the close of the book, De Nooy quotes one of his own characters: “If we didn’t laugh so much, we’d spend the whole day crying.” Excessively readable, profoundly sexual: there is a scene in a curtained-off darkroom that would give all the tannies in Zeerust a cadenza. In a city full of Polish rent-boys and Rasta drug-dealers, in the passage from conservatism to manufactured anarchy, South African readers will recognise and, perhaps, applaud the stubborn vulnerability of the provincial Princess and his mom.
First published in the Cape Times and used with permission