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by John van de Ruit (Penguin)
If the first Spud novel began with a trembling hairless boytjie being dumped on the doorstep of a palatial Midlands school teeming with hormonal, acned brutes, then this fourth offering is the last: Spud is now a prefect, licensed to beat, and as always, clinical observer of the lunatics running the asylum.
Spud – Exit, Pursued by a Bear bookends a series that achieves the almost-impossible: a seamless set of similar books, each built on the other, moving forward with sensitivity and hilarity; the author deserves a standing ovation. Though the knowledge that he’s sold more than half a million copies just inside South Africa must keep him toasty in bed at night.
Some boy characters remain ever-frozen in their original form to attract fresh generations of same-age readers. John van de Ruit has had the vision to allow young John Milton (yes, ha ha), scholarship boy to a posh KZN school suspiciously like Michaelhouse (which the author attended) to say goodbye to his school years which, Spud suspects on leaving, may just have been the best years of his life.
(I’m of the rather jaundiced view that if school days are the best days of your life then you’ve led either an over-protected childhood or been a pathetically uninteresting grownup.)
The best ingredients of the previous Spud books are here: the Crazy Eight (now down to Seven), the dotty and/or dipsomaniac masters, the alluring Eve, curvy counsellor to the boys and subject of their furtively-fumbling fantasties, and the oddly-imperialist private school system that allowed (and in some cases still does) not yet fully-formed young men to treat their younger school counterparts like, as Spud puts it, “slaves”.
It makes for wonderful reading even though it must be hell to live through. The ridiculous culture of entitlement based on ripening age, privilege and sheer brute force is deftly handled by Van de Ruit to give us hours of mirth, without disguising the sheer horror of the system itself.
His chums in the Crazy Eight have now been lifted to lofty status in the school: silky Simon is head of house, irresistible cricketer of note. Rambo continues to rampage, Boggo works every angle to his advantage, at one stage charging the juniors to use the urinal on the basis that they can’t aim; Garlic is still droning on incessantly about the wonders of Lake Malawi and Fatty has to fight off a pretender to his crown, Plump Graham, involving a great deal of eating and weigh-offs to claim the obesity championship.
Even more alarming is the “cretin” Vern, aka Rain Man, who has evolved from oddity into a full-blown pyschopath living under the staircase. The adults supposedly in charge seem to be oblivious or indifferent to the boys’ guerrilla warfare. Viking, the Housemaster, is obsessed with notching up a record number of house trophies for the year while the Guv continues to drink, chirp and generally behave increasingly like John Cleese (who played him in the movie of Spud).
Then there’s Blushing Albert Schweitzer, the maddeningly efficient “slave” to Spud, a born Private Secretary in the moulding. And the House debate is so funny I had to read the passage twice due to double vision from choking on my tea.
Back home, Spud’s family continues to embarrass him on every possible occasion, while Wombat (granny) has moved into a new level of dementia.
Yet Spud’s chief goal (like other teenaged boys) is to get laid; he pins his hopes on his renewed relationship with Mermaid, and the matric dance … will he end his school years a virgin? To him and his mates, it’s the only thing more important to them than passing. Exit, Spud, pursued by our grateful laughter and a regretful farewell. – Beverley Roos-Muller