Embellishing the Jozi Underworld: A cracker of a novel.

Dup Departs coverDup Departs: A Time To Go sees a likeable, middle-aged, soft but resourceful suburbanite thrown into a maelstrom of drug warfare, police-corruption and murder. With the bank barking at his heels and depressed about the modesty of his achievements as a filmmaker, Dup is ready for a big score. It will be his family’s ticket out of South Africa.

When his enigmatic stripper friend, Louanne, introduces him to a shady nightclub boss offering good money to make lame porn, Dup jumps at the chance. But he did not bargain on shady becoming sociopathic.  Dup is swept into a plot populated by seriously menacing hardmen; Ivan Bazkaowzki, a sadistic Polish Don, goons on Harleys, loathsome detectives up to their elbows in dirty money and a Nigerian crime kingpin gone straight (or maybe not). Along the way fists fly, evidence is planted, women are kidnapped and huge shipments of cocaine moved across the country.

To survive, Dup must draw on psychological reserves never used before, keep his panicked family safe, dissemble and lie and make crazy alliances. It’s a suspenseful ride through an underworld neighbourhood with a hero totally unequal to the task. And yet … there may just be a way out, if only Dup can hold his nerve.

Although set largely in South Africa, author Gavin Mills escapes the insularity of so many writers in that country. For international readers, the novel’s Johannesburg, Sun City and Durban scenes will be exotic as opposed to obscure. This will widen Dup Departs’ appeal as an airport buy at any terminal. For locals though, the book offers recognizable backdrops, especially the half-built apartment overlooking the City of Gold from the back of Yeoville. Here Dup meets an alluring woman in circumstances provoking pure envy in this reviewer.

Books have a feel just as much as they have a plot. This one is slightly noir, it has the ‘adamant realism’ of an Ed McBain but with some creatively risqué Millian quips thrown in.

Here are a few of my favourites.

Summing up the character of show-offs in a bar, Dup notes that “nothing added inches to a penis faster than a Harley Davidson – and Alex, Max and Rob had added the whole nine yards.” I snorted into my coffee cup.

Dup reflects on the type of man who uses wealth to get pretty young things back to his yacht: “Irrespective of the country, this breed was all the same: slimy as a greased eel and as smooth as custard over rippled shit”. I’m stealing the part about custard.

Speeding through Johannesburg on a superbike with Louanne at the back, Dup’s attention is diverted: “The back of her hands rested easy against the tank, cupping his balls but not quite touching”. I thoroughly enjoyed the implied sexual yearning between Dup and Louanne. It is one of the things that contributed to the book’s strong pickupability, by which I mean the strength of the urge to dip back into Dup’s adventures after putting the novel down to do needful things.

A few, a tiny few, notes landed skew on my ear.  Amidst the vivid passages, I feel some phrases could be retired should Dup Ride Again. Things going ‘pear-shaped’ feels old. And a character having his ‘hackles raised’ appeared once too often.  It risks becoming a go-to description that then loses impact.

And, without being a pedantic one myself, Mills should probably settle on the spelling of the word ‘arsehole / asshole’.

I think it is immature for a reviewer to mark a book down merely because they do not identify with the politics or ideology implicit in it. It also often betrays a conflation of narrator and author. Writers like Nabokov and J.M. Coetzee suffer from sanctimonious reviewers slating their work for supporting child-abuse or being pessimistic about race relations because that was the theme of their book. I am also by no means a third-wave feminist, in word or deed. Having said that, I think Mills’ male characters would have greater depth and relatability if they did not tend towards a similar chauvinism in their interior dialogue. I say this noting that most characters share the same underworld milieu. But still … their gazes at women fell a little monotonously on tits and tight asses.

As a visual metaphor showing just how decadent and untouchable the super-rich have become, a Viagra-induced orgy with nubile women at a mansion is great. But the scene where a police-chief hosts such an party for withered politicians and crime bosses didn’t work for me. It’s not that politicians are not sexual predators or that they do not consort most scandalously with criminals. As a South African, Mills has much fodder for this theme on the public record.  But these liaisons are less flamboyant and more mundane. This scene was very filmic but, for me, it affected the plausibility of the plot a little.

It could also be, of course, that I hardly party in which case this point should be considered a reflection on my own cloistered life.

Before knowing more about Gavin Mills, I intended questioning whether Dup, a former dancer, was likely to have the skills set (and license) to suddenly drive a huge truck 600 km, performing rather precise parking when he got there. This is a key part of the plot. Then I realized that Mills himself has led a life that easily combined these diverse abilities. He was, once upon a time, a professional dancer and an officer in military transport during a war.

For the book as a whole, the comments above are but quibbles. There is not enough space to list all the things Mills, in my estimation, gets right. Fantastic names, good pacing, cleverly introduced backstories, subversion of a pernicious stereotype about wealthy Nigerians and an audacious alliance of the good guys that had me rooting till the end. Mills has written a cracker of a book and it explodes with vivid characters and blasts of action.

Towards the satisfying finale, a character learns a valuable lesson: “Use your newfound fortune to embellish your world, not change it”. This echoes but now also contradicts the novel’s subtitle. Maybe, for the survivors of the mayhem, a Time To Go has become a Time to Stay Differently.

 


Dup Departs: A Time to Go is for sale in paperback on Amazon and on Kindle.

Heinrich Böhmke is the author of Sarie.