NB: Spoilers are avoided where possible but please be aware that some may slip through or be unavoidable.
Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century, 2013)
Synopsis: Baxter Zevcenko’s life is pretty sweet. As the 16-year-old kingpin of the Spider, his smut-peddling schoolyard syndicate, he’s making a name for himself as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. Profits are on the rise, the other gangs are staying out of his business, and he’s going out with Esmé, the girl of his dreams. But when Esmé gets kidnapped, and all the clues point towards strange forces at work, things start to get seriously weird. The only man drunk enough to help is a bearded, booze-soaked, supernatural bounty hunter that goes by the name of Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin. Plunged into the increasingly bizarre landscape of Cape Town’s supernatural underworld, Baxter and Ronin team up to save Esmé. On a journey that takes them through the realms of impossibility, they must face every conceivable nightmare to get her back, including the odd brush with the Apocalypse. (from Goodreads)
I won this book through a Goodreads giveaway and was drawn to it not only by the manic cover but also from the quote “Neil Gaiman meets Tarantino in this madcap, wildly entertaining journey into Cape Town’s supernatural underworld.” Now, as a fan of both Gaiman and Tarantino, I figured it would be my kind of thing and I was right. There are definite strains of both writers in the story and style. We have the deep mythology that Gaiman is so fond of and the witty, snarky characters that are thrown into these bizarre scenarios. But the banter between the characters is so natural and off the cuff that you can understand the Tarantino lean, too. Not to mention the rather elaborate violence at some points (there are some very cringing moments but not too many to detract from the story). But I would also add Brett Easton Ellis to the list. In Bax we have a character similar to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Only, where Bateman was knowingly insane and blood-thirsty, we are treated to Bax wondering if he is going insane and if the supernatural events are all fabrications of his deluded mind or if reality is just stranger than fiction. He is set up to be slightly sociopathic in that he doesn’t show much emotion and manipulates all those around him to his own ends (going so far as to call those unattached to him NCPs, a nice touch). He has a great voice that rings very true as that of a teenage boy with some excellent turns of phrase. It’s fun to see how his personality shifts with the kidnapping of his girlfriend and the fact that *GASP!* he may actually have feelings!
I’m not usually one for first person present but it really aided this story and kept the tension up at all times as we followed Bax on this crazy ride through ever increasingly filthy and depraved settings with an assortment of well constructed characters at his side. Ronin is a brilliant counter-point to Bax and allows for some great interaction. I also really liked Kyle and wish we had seen more of him throughout (in fact, I wish we had seen more of the Spider as a whole as I liked the idea of the gang and their dynamic).
Human cleverly gets his way around the restrictions first person present can put on an author by ending many of the chapters with such things as news articles and reports to deliver backstory in an entertaining way. Yes, it’s exposition but it made a nice change from overly descriptive dialogue or internal monologues.
I suppose it would be described as YA due to the main character being only 16 but there are some amazingly gruesome moments in the narrative, maybe unnecessarily so, that make it for an older audience. As well as the focus on pornography that Bax distributes at school to make a living that comes into play later in the story.
Pacing wise, I found it a bit…strange. It may well just be me but it took me about three weeks to get halfway through the book and then just one day more to finish it. But, rather than it taking a while to get into it (events kick in almost straight away and I was already hooked by the characters and writing style), I think maybe it was a case of too much happening in the first half. There is a lot of mythology to set up, characters to introduce, changes in POV from Bax to some kind of dream entity, lots of great description that I think I had to keep taking a break to digest it all. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, I just think maybe it could have been spread out a bit more. I did find myself getting confused with the dreams/visions at some points but it did all become clearer near the end and would probably make for an interesting re-read. At the halfway point, things become much more focused and we are heading towards a particularly destination and I didn’t stop reading until we got there and it was a very satisfactory one.
I also liked that it was set in South Africa. I have never read a book with South African main characters and so it was nice to have a change of scenery and culture.
Overall, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to fans of Neil Gaiman, Supernatural (the TV show but also, I suppose, just the genre itself) and Welcome to Night Vale.