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Philippa Murray reviews Apetown:more than an action-packed thriller

ApetownSven EickApetown, Sven Eick‘s debut novel (Human and Rousseau) is a find for South African readers. Philippa Murray enjoyed the satirical tone and the keen observation of place and character in a witty, entertaining thriller about a pool scam set in Greenpoint.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times

“ ‘ ‘s ape town, my bra,’ he enunciated, slowly. ‘Dis ‘n apetown.’ With that summation of the urban sprawl he turned his head and spat into a clump of grass and, without waiting for a comment from me, rose to his feet unsteadily and staggered off into the bush.” This is the moment in the book where we learn the origin of the title, and just like everything else in Eick’s novel, it is a light and flashing snippet of an unexpected character that brings a smile and a knowing nod to the reader.

Sven Eick’s first novel is fresh and fast-paced. Even the cover of the book, at first confusing, begins to make sense and become witty in itself, as one plummets into the rather unconventional world of Lars and his friends, Frankie and Croccy. Eick describes Apetown as satirical. He explains the annoyance, or amusement, with which he sees young people wearing Che Guevara T-shirts as fashion accessories and symbols of modern hipness, when he is certain that Che’s face has become meaninglessly commercial and misunderstood. So, the presence of Che’s face on a white pool ball on the front of the book is an ironic stab at that, and also a reference to the name of the pool bar where Lars gets embroiled in a unique scam.

A Cuban restaurant was a perfect lunch meeting spot, seeing as hanging with Eick in a pool bar would have been a bit too sadly clichéd, and the old pool hall called Castro’s no longer exists. Eick is young and open-faced, and chatted easily about his life, travels and writing. He was eager to find out whether or not the satire of the story had been grasped, not wanting the book to be seen as too serious. His enthusiasm and humility made him endearing, as he downplayed the task of writing a unique South African novel. He talked about what it was like moving to Cape Town from Johannesburg when he was eighteen, and said that for a few years he felt like an outsider. This gave him the space to observe the Mother City and her people, and he used to fill notebooks and his memory with little observations and ideas.

John van de Ruit describes Apetown as “acutely observed” and that is Eick’s strength. For years, Eick worked as a barman on cruise ships and used to write monthly group emails to his friends back home. It was these, often funny and almost unbelievable, descriptions of people and experiences that got his friends talking and encouraging him to actually write a book. He has the beginnings of his memoirs and a bulging suitcase of other book ideas on his computer. But it was a short story that he wrote that got fleshed out into Apetown.

He has slipped quirky characters that he has met over the years into his book, and casually draped them around a central idea of a pool hall scam. Croccy is a “first-rate mechanic” who “since the age of eighteen, [has] refused, under any circumstances, to remove his shoes or wash his feet.” And Tiny, a monolith of a man, has “the moist pelt of his chest” described as smelling “like a DKNY toilet tab in a public urinal.” Eick doesn’t make a meal of describing people but captures them in a brief sensory way.

Apetown is set in Cape Town and on the streets of Greenpoint. A down-and-out young man, Lars, and his equally unsettled and out-of-focus friends, hatch a cunning plan to make a quick buck out of hustling pool halls and their owners. Their tricks should make them a humble allowance without much effort, but turns into a waking nightmare when they are caught redhanded in a snazzy pool bar. A tale of penance follows as Lars has to work back his crime in a series of dirty jobs and outlandish scenes until his terror and dread reach breaking point.

Apetown teeters on the edge of being an action-packed thriller with a “Godfather” character called Costas, a few henchmen and the quintessential jittering wrecks of young men who have got themselves too deeply into the quagmire of a failed scam. But, at the same time, it is not at all a thriller but more a witty and slick tale full of misunderstandings and real-life comedy. The twist in the tale is ‘not at all contrived’ and Eick describes his book as being ‘organic’ and “[holding] together on its own.” It is as clever as one of those short South African movies one sometimes sees at film festivals, which impresses the audience and begs the question why we don’t get to see more of them.

Eick describes Tiny, “squeezed into a tuxedo two sizes too small for him”, as having short trousers which “[reveal] a pair of white socks that [have] crawled down his shins like fluffy caterpillars and now [lie] pooled around his thick ankles.” Lars, the narrator, “in the absence of an iron”, has tried to ‘press [his] clothes with [his] own body heat”. Both men appear to have just climbed out of a wash basket and are food for chuckles in an awkward scene in a posh hotel.

Eick also captures Seapoint on an all-too-familiar grey and windy Sunday morning with “ocean spray and large clots of [jaundiced] yellow foam [blowing] over the sea wall.” After a long wait in the ever-worsening wind, Lars is left with “little more than frozen extremities and the saucy scars that had been left on [his] clothes by the airborne fast-food packaging.”

Sven Eick is onto something new and liberating for South African readers. He is a dedicated writer with plans to start working on a seventeenth century thriller set in Munich, loosely based on historical fact. He is brimming with ideas but cautious about how Apetown will be received. A wise and talented storyteller, Eick is at the beginning of an exciting chapter as a novelist.

 

Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    January 18th, 2008 @09:27 #
     
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    An expertly-pulled carrot, Barbara. And if that wasn't enough to make Sven blush, here's a profile in Helderberg.com, of all places:

    http://www.news24.com/Regional_Papers/Components/Category_Article_Text_Template/0,,303-716-717_2253414~E,00.html

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    January 18th, 2008 @23:43 #
     
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    This is the literary equivalent of popping your cherry - plucking your first carrot. In public. Eish, Sven. Well done. Will pick up a copy when I'm next in town.

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  • Sven
    Sven
    January 19th, 2008 @00:42 #
     
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    Thanks. 'Plucking your carrot'? Hmm...

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