Friday 23 August 2013

Book Review | Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

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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 Esme, the girl of his dreams.

But when Esme 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 Esme. 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.


Baxter Zevcenko has worked hard to get where he's gotten. He has good friends, great entrepreneurial expectations, a gorgeous girlfriend — name of Esmé — and if the Spider has a head, it's him.

The Spider, by the by, is a schoolyard syndicate of porn brokers in indirect competition with the two larger gangs that operate at Westridge High. Things between the Form and the Nice Time Kids are coming to a head, however, and Baxter believes the resulting rise in violence will be bad for business:
One student getting stabbed would be inconvenient. A gang war could be the death knell for [the Spider]. Lockers would be searched, pupils would be questioned, parents would be summoned, and there are just too many trails leading to us. (p.12)
Really, Baxter has no choice but to intervene — or so he sees it.

He sets out, in any event, to engineer a seemingly impossible peace. And credit to the kid, he nearly succeeds. But while his mind is mired in machinations of the Machiavellian kind, Esmé goes missing... and to make matters worse, all signs point to her having been kidnapped by the Mountain Killer: a serial murderer who has made his name in the Cape Town area by carving the all-seeing eye — the very occult icon Baxter has been dreaming of recently — into the foreheads of his twelve (going on thirteen) victims.

Which just goes to show: when you've got it good, what you really have is that much more to lose.

If you were thinking all this must represent rock bottom for our poor protagonist, you couldn't be more wrong, because there's a very real possibility that Baxter is in fact the Mountain Killer. A possibility Sergeant Schoeman, "the Michelin man of the South African police force," (p.60) treats very seriously indeed.

Add to his incessant dreams of death and his close ties to at least two of the Mountain Killer's victims the fact that Baxter has a family history of mental maladies: he sees a psychiatrist himself, whilst his baby brother Rafe is mostly mute and his Grandpa Zev believes with every fibre of his weakening being that giant crows are out to get him.

Fact is, though, they are. Or at the very least they were. But now it looks like they're rather more interested in our man... and giant crows are far from the only evil he needs to deal with.

So it is that Baxter finds himself swept up in the seedy "supernatural ecosystem" (p.112) that debut author Charlie Human superimposes upon his rendition of sunny South Africa. The existence of the Hidden Ones might well catch readers off guard, particularly considering how abruptly this becomes the book's foremost focus, but it comes as no surprise to the possibly homicidal anti-hero at the darkly fantastic heart of Apocalypse Now Now:
I've been bathed in the warm glow of supernatural fantasies ever since I can remember. The fairy tales my parents read me as a kid, TV, video games, it all kinda feels like they've been preparing me for this moment. It feels somehow natural and the other world, the one with taxes, life insurance, twenty leave days a year, cancer, and the realisation that you're never, ever going to be a celebrity, is the shadow, the fantasy and the delusion. The world is as I always intuited it to be; weird, fractured and full of monsters. (p.116)
Monsters Baxter will have to handle if he has a hope in hell of getting Esmé back, assuming he hasn't already killed her himself. To that end, he pilfers profits from his porn business to pay for protection from a bearded, booze-soaked bounty hunter: Ronin in both name and nature. Together, they literally lay waste to Cape Town — not that it's the prettiest of places to begin with. Here's Baxter on what is practically his back yard:
It smells like wet dog and puke. One thing I love about the canal is its honesty; like a sick, swollen artery beneath the Botox of suburbs. The homeless was here listening to the sounds of rich people frolicking in their garden jacuzzis. Through the windows you can see lawyers watching TV or bankers furtively looking at PornTube, while drunks have sex in the long grass that borders the canal. I pull my grey hoodie over my head and pedal faster. (p.41)
Cruel and unusual as it is, Apocalypse Now Now's setting is pitch perfect for the wicked fun forthcoming. I've spent quite a while in South Africa myself, and in certain spots it is awfully end-of-the-world-esque. The idea, then, that there could be some strange undiscovered space between the squalorous urban sprawl and the baked wilderness outwith its cities is not as mal (if I may) as it appears. Mix in some canny concepts and creepy creatures from local folklore and you can imagine how well the setting lends itself to the terrific tale Human tells.

That said, the way the author expands the story's speculative elements is lazy at the least. Smack bang in the middle of Apocalypse Now Now there's an ugly infodump during which Baxter gets the grand tour of a shelter housing several supernatural specimens, all while an obscenely convenient character explains the larger lay of the land.

The only other nit I feel compelled to pick relates to how Human almost entirely abandons the hijinx at Westridge High with which his book begins. I'd have loved to spend a little longer learning about Baxter and the Spider before the appearance of the last living Obambo. Failing that, Human could have come full circle before the conclusion, and though to a degree he does, the scant resolve he offers at this stage is too little too late to sate.

Thankfully, these issues don't massively detract from the breakneck pace and mad imagination that make Apocalypse Now Now such an addictive experience. As one of an associate of Ronin's remarks: "There's no pause button, you understand? [...] Once it starts you have to see it through." (p.244)

All too true!

Between The Shining Girls, the lion's share of the short stories collected in Ivor Hartmann's excellent AfroSF anthology, and S. L. Grey's next novel, 2013 looks to be a tremendous year for South African speculative fiction: a welcome trend Apocalypse Now Now continues, irrespective of a few founding foibles.


Apocalypse Now Now
by Charlie Human

UK Publication: August 2013, Century
SA Publication: July 2013, Umuzi

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