Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nobody Dies by Zirk van den Berg

Published by Say Books in 2011.
Available from Say Books and Amazon Kindle Store.
If you purchase from Say Books you get both the epub and Kindle formats. Also, the author and publisher get a bit more if you purchase from Say Books.

Daniel Enslin is a man adrift.
He had never planned to live like this, with the promise of half understood fictions slowly being throttled in the tightening grip of everyday responsibility. Although his ambitions had always been too vague to act upon, they were strong enough to imbue himself with a sense of failure. His personal life had little more allure than a game of solitaire played with an incomplete deck of cards.
With a failed marriage and a nothing job, the only thing that makes him feel the least bit alive is his relationship with Cape Town gangster Frank Redelinghuys. Frank publicly plays himself as a self-styled entrepreneur, maybe a little shady, but who is a drug dealing, murdering gangster. Daniel feels excitement, "in touch with a world beyond the ordinary" when he hangs around and does little odd jobs for Frank. This changes when Daniel sees Frank commit a brutal murder. Frank doesn't know for sure what Daniel might have seen but when the death is reported in the paper the next day, both Daniel and Frank begin to worry for their own safety.

Scared that Frank might be looking at him as a liability, Daniel contacts detective Mike Acker who Frank had mentioned as hating his guts. Mike is also someone with an acute sense of failure. He has failed to nail Frank on other occasions. Pushing fifty and sidelined into a cul-de-sac job, Frank is desperate for a breakthrough case that will put his career back on track and Daniel might be the one to get him that break. Daniel reminds Mike of himself when he was younger, "a misfit trying to make good in some modest way" and Daniel starts to see Mike as his only friend.

Mike soon realizes that protecting Daniel is going to need a more permanent solution and he turns to Erica van der Linde . Erica handles witness protection and is an expert at making people disappear. Erica is everything Mike isn't, younger, successful, likely to be promoted, and "everybody's darling." She is also the daughter of a legendary Pretoria cop. Erica comes with her own demons, with amends she is trying to make. Her father was taken from her violently while on the job when she was young and impressionable. His philosophy that "once a man puts himself on the wrong side of the law, he loses the right to the law's protection" has a strong influence on how Erica approaches witness relocation.

Four characters, four goals— stay alive, dispense justice, find success, eliminate a threat.

When I read Nobody Dies, I thought of it as straight forward crime fiction. You have a Cape Town gangster, deaths, corruption, betrayal, police procedurals. Now I'm seeing Nobody Dies as a story about identity— three people trying to define themselves, trying to find their place, trying to give meaning to their lives—with the crime fiction elements as a vehicle. van den Berg achieves an intimacy with his treatment of Daniel, Mike, and Erica that invests the reader in their story.

Within this dangerous predicament, Daniel is able to take command of his life and deal with the situation on his terms. Erica, Mike, and Frank have their paths defined by Daniel giving him an influence you wouldn't expect from the man you see at the beginning.

I enjoy Zirk's style of writing very much and would characterize it as edging into literary fiction. The characters are reflective but not in a way that slows down the narrative. While there are good action sequences in Nobody Dies, it is more character than action driven. As I finish this review more than a year after I read the book, feelings of sadness and affirmation still surface as I recall the characters and the road they travel within the story.

Zirk, if you read this, I don't want to condemn you to prequels and sequels but there are some good stories in these characters. Nudge, nudge.

Zirk is from South Africa but has immigrated to New Zealand with his family.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

South African Township Barbershops & Salons by Simon Weller

Available from Amazon in a hardcover edition.

This is an odd book for me to write about considering the theme of this blog but I can connect it with a bit of a stretch. As a reader of South African crime fiction I am used to seeing the shebeens mentioned as gathering places in townships though, mainly, for the low-life gangster elements. With this book I learned that the barbershops and beauty salons are better representations of a township's community hub.

I have a nostalgic feeling for small town barbershops. I think of scenes from Norman Rockwell and Floyd's Barbershop in the Andy Griffith Show. Weller's book made me wonder what it would be like to have this sort of gathering place when the sense of a neighborhood has all but disappeared.

Weller got the idea for the book while visiting a township in 2009. He noticed that barbershops and beauty solons were thriving and became intrigued with names like Try Again Hair Shop and Let's Fix It Barbershop and the vivid hand-painted artwork used to identify these shops.

The author shows the "sharp and snappy vernacular designs" used to advertise the barbershops and beauty salons in Johanesburg, rural townships, Durban, and Cape Town but it isn't entirely a photo essay. He includes interviews with proprietors, customers, and artists. He shows these informal barbershops as community hubs in the townships.

Since many of these shops are truly informal and not licensed, the ingenuity of the proprietors to meet the challenges of the locations is remarkable. You find them in old shipping containers where  electricity might come from car batteries and the water is in buckets from neighborhood taps.

Weller needed local guides to approach these shops. A white man wanting to photograph your business  is not something that would immediately yield acceptance and trust in the townships. When they saw that Weller might be odd but not a threat the shop owners, artists, and patrons were mostly open to him taking photographs and talking with him.

In the rural township of Dzanani in the Northern Limpopo, Weller decided to have his hair cut in King Tiger's Hair Clinique. Since KingTiger had never cut a white man's hair it was subject to much amusement for the other customers. He described the result as a cross between a U.S. Marine and a character from Bevis & Butthead.

The photographs in South African Township Barbershops & Solons are a pleasure to view and I frequently find myself looking at the cover with its functional if chaotic dangling wires and leafing through it again and again. The interviews give the photographs the humanity, the purpose or role behind the settings.

This is the kind of book that is a pleasure to own. In addition to the content, it is well bound in hardcover with an excellent layout and beautiful photographs. I keep it out rahter than shelve it.

If I was to write a crime novel where the detective or police officer ventured into a township I would definitely have my character visit these shops to find out what was happening in the community.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in graphic arts, photography, advertising, and, most important, life in South Africa.