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Ruth Browne Reviews The Big Stick by Richard de Nooy

The Big StickVerdict: carrot

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.

Book Details

First published in the Cape Times and used with permission

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 2nd, 2012 @23:43 #
     
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    This Ruth Browne is a find. She writes good reviews in under 500 words. And she did a 150 word review of Mark Thornton's Kid Moses (in last week's Cape Times) that was a cracker.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 3rd, 2012 @06:21 #
     
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    Reading this now. You know, Richard forced me to, threatening to beat me with a big (bread) stick next time we met. So I've cancelled rehearsals for my reading at the Woordfees.

    Enjoying the book well; the identification with Staal that the text generates through various devices - understated style, offbeat humour, different characters' portrayals of Staal - is impressive.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    February 3rd, 2012 @09:56 #
     
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    Very glad to hear you're enjoying it, Rustum. But not so glad to hear you've cancelled rehearsals for Woordfees. When is that, by the way?

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 3rd, 2012 @10:38 #
     
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    Och, an obtuse joke. I was gonna be a supporting act, with Serote and Gabeba Baderoon at a Gordimer reading on 7 March. She pulled out at the last minute, so she could attend publicity events for her book in London 2 days after, and, at her age, understandably not up to the stress of too much travel. But bad form, if you ask me. She had apparently agreed to the Woordfees event, where she would have been an especially profiled writer, six months ago.

    http://www.channel24.co.za/News/Local/Gordimer-withdraws-from-Woordfees-20120202

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    February 3rd, 2012 @11:19 #
     
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    Why didn't they just go ahead with the reading anyway? Does poetry lose power in the absence of God and Gordimer?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 3rd, 2012 @14:18 #
     
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    Richard, I wanted to "like" your comment. I am clearly indoctrinated. Also sorry Rustum isn't reading at Woordfees; and glad he' s enjoying TBS. I can't remember when I last saw such a slew of carrots and endorsements. Very proud of you.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    February 3rd, 2012 @15:00 #
     
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    Thanks, Helen. Such costly carrots, but well worth the investment, I reckon.

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