The first chapter of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel is fraught with anxiety. Countless faceless, nameless people are desperate to enter into the United States. People here have no names: only designations. You have Visas and Citizens. Our narrator and protagonist is number A98108755 – a Visa making its way through Customs and Immigration.
“I carry documents certifying I am free of hepatitis A and B, influenza, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles and rotavirus. I am able to prove that I am a good number with sufficient funds, that knows the address to my final destination,” the narrator tells us. The last bit, of course, is a contradiction, which reveals itself as the book unfolds. In the book, this “final destination” is as elusive as the reasons our protagonist is so desperate to get into America.
The story opens in 1998 and catalogues the narrator’s ups and downs in vivid, sharp prose reminiscent of gonzo journalism. One can sense an acute sense of self-disgust in the tone of the book. It begins to feel as though the language and style is used as a tool with which to try speak of the psychological trauma of having grown up in the conservative silence of white apartheid South Africa and the white post-apartheid fear of the unknown. The novel is hinged on a character who has left a new constitutional democracy led by a government of what he must have been taught to believe to be terrorists, to the crafting of a new American identity in post 9/11 that was founded, quite overtly, on the imagining and cultural production of “the terrorist” as a Muslim body, and how that affected the American psyche.
In one of the most superb understatements in the book, the 17-year old protagonist, who has just left South Africa exclaims, “I feel anonymous and free,” upon setting foot on American soil. Soon, he’ll find himself at The Alibi – a seedy bar in Brooklyn where he finds work cleaning toilets and mopping vomit off the mottled floors before graduating to become a barman of a mangled bar. In short, staccato sentences that sting, the narrator catalogues the drunks and the drug dealers and the drugs; the racists and the whores and the warmongers – every moiling muppet who finds himself along DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.
This is the Fort Greene soon-to-be gentrified, a place that is miffed by the looming presence of bull-horned hipsters. This Fort Greene is still rowdy and unpredictable. Our narrator survives the violence and the drabness of his new home by drowning in drink. We are never told about the narrator’s past in Cape Town, South Africa. We are never allowed even a glimpse into the nature and reason for his despair and detachment from his home country. Perhaps here the author aimed to navigate away from the niggling bits of contemporary South African history and its racial politics.
It is through the unsaid that one might say The Alibi Club represents a liminal space for our narrator. Between 1998 and 2007 his life dangles aimlessly on crumbling American ground and the birth of a dangerous Americanism built of war on terror and a fickle urbanism built on the faux-culture of hipsterism. During this time of transition, of waiting, and of not knowing what to do next or what will happen next, he finds refuge in the smoky haze of an ‘old time bar’ – The Alibi Club – where he meets the characters that give the novel such sharp luminosity.
It is these skeptical, cynical characters – desperate and dejected by the changes in their environment and with America at large – and the author’s tight-fisted language that lends the novel its pungent stench. Take for instance:
“Everybody has an Amy. Amy has a Hotmail account. Amy is crazy. Amy makes me crazy. Amy eats uppers out of plastic wrappers. I’m mad about Amy. I think we’re mad about each other. Amy wants me deep inside her. She has her reasons.”
“Tommy is a boss while Owen is gone. His hands get sick. Boils from inside his palms. He can’t paint. His skin breaks out in a rash up to his elbows. He says it’s from washing dishes.”
“Before Jean-Baptiste disappeared entirely, he owned an Alfa Romeo. Nobody owns an Alfa Romeo in Brooklyn. His was a red 1974 Spider Veloce. When it didn’t look like rain, JB drove around the neighbourhood in his Spider. The Spider moved into the raw space on Waverly Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby, before he did. Later, above the garage, he fashioned a room with a bed and a glass coffee table on which he could do more cocaine.”
The book follows this logic and economy until the very end. It is filled with countless characters that enliven its every page. However, they never quite give you any depth or any real insight into their lives and motivations and despair. As one reads further, the characters begin to feel more like caricatures and the novel begins to feel like an assemblage of images than a construction of meanings. Perhaps, this owes to the author’s background as a visual artist or perhaps, it was an artistic choice in the composition of the novel itself.
Stylistically, the novel is great and the narrative voice is captivating. It is unfortunate that we never get to know why our narrator left South Africa in 1998. It would’ve been ideal to learn the source of the character’s desperation to get into America during that transitional era of his home country. One only gets a sense of skeletons lurking in the shadows. Every sap and sod who finds themselves at The Alibi seems to drag a few of these skeletons to dissolve them in a drink or two, or more, while something sinister encroaches on the bar and DeKalb Avenue’s way of life.
In conclusion, perhaps, one could say that the book is about an imagined community among strangers. More precisely, The Alibi Club is a support group of people who leaned against each other for support during a tumultuous time in the history of America and the world.
Originally appeared in Cape Times*