Celebrating East African Writing!
Nervousness and excitement is what I felt when Biko announced his ‘small’ first book. The excitement is easy to explain. He is an exemplary writer who has managed to acquire quite a loyal and sizable following on his blog ‘Bikozulu’. But what if the book did not live up to what the blog promises? He wasn’t kidding when he called the book small. With 104 pages (according to the Amazon Kindle), this book is barely half the length of an average novel. Premeditated or not, this might be a genius move considering that most of the targeted readers will come from his blog reading fan base, used to reading him in a single sitting.
Biko’s blog posts are not only highly entertaining but are also easy to read and even easier to identify with for most of his readers. His writing voice seems to come straight from the standard urbane Kenyan. The self deprecating jokes and witty social commentary hold up a mirror to the lives of his readers. That mirror largely reflects Kenya’s middle class; most likely because that is where Biko himself comes from. One would argue however, that he has managed something only a few accomplished writers have. That is, to make his writing relevant to readers from varied backgrounds. Drunk, Biko’s first book reads as his blog articles read. He writes in simple and clear language, beautiful imagery, deep insight into the humanity of his characters and of course, the singular signature of how Biko sees and experiences the world around him. His creativity which we get sniffs of in his articles, is finally set loose in this story that touches on a subject that he has passionately written about before. There are a few kinks, mostly small ones and one (unfortunately) not so small. If you love reading Biko’s posts on Bikozulu however, you are guaranteed to enjoy this book, kinks or not.
That the protagonist of Drunk is an alcoholic (or becomes one) will not come as a surprise owing to the book’s title. Larry is urbane, successful and highly likable despite his flaws. We meet Larry in the very first chapter before drinking becomes a problem. He is narrating his own story and introducing us to the girl of the moment. A couple of girls are later to follow as the story unfolds, with the only common denominator among them being their gender. It is the first hint for us that Larry likes to indulge and that when he does, stopping is not easy. This however is not all there is to him. He seems to genuinely see more in these girls past their pretty faces. Of Tina the first girl we meet, he writes ‘I liked her. I liked her a hell of a lot. Not just her ass, which was like a treasured monument, but her as a person. .. And I did not deserve her’. In one of the first chapters, we meet teenage Larry in a flashback, and his older brother Jeff. Jeff is going through a rough patch after coming back home with a ‘worthless’ degree from India. It is during this time as Jeff nurses his depression with alcohol, that Larry takes his first drink. Ironically, teenage Larry is the sane voice that tries to bring his older brother Jeff back from the brink. Jeff manages one day to – snap out of his dark bat-shit existence- to paraphrase the book, He gets up one day, pulls his shit together and continues with life like nothing had happened. A few years later the roles are drastically reversed.
Pretty early in the book we are introduced to the Artisan and his family. This part of the story is written in the third person and I have to confess, the sub story was perhaps my favorite piece of writing in the book. Apart from the very appealing authenticity of the characters, reading this part of the narration in the third person is like discovering a new writer I might come to like very much. It is a different and a fresh voice of Biko that his readers have not much encountered before. As the book progresses, Larry’s story will be juxtaposed with the Artisan’s story, until these two stories collide in a heart stopping moment and merge to continue (and end) as one story. Before that collision however, we follow Larry first as he tells us of his successful career as a salesman, his yearning for a father that has never been present or involved and later, to a promotion that seems to be the proverbial straw that breaks his back. In between all that, we meet some of his girlfriends that come into his life and subsequently leave.
The lack of a father figure seems to be a huge thing even though Larry does not seem to think it is. He once attempts to reach out to his father, a gynaecologist in Nairobi only to be met with a lukewarm reception. His mother is the only parental figure he has and it seems he is very emotionally attached to her. After his mother retires, she moves away from Nairobi to Eldoret and this leaves Larry feeling bereft. He gets promoted (under pressure) at work and moves from actively engaging with his clients, something that he has enjoyed and excelled in, to sitting behind a desk behind a door bearing his name. Soon after, he realizes what he had suspected all along. The higher paying job is not for the likes of him. He however does nothing about his unhappy situation. Or rather, he does something, just not what is good for him. His drinking has been increasing steadily and now it spirals out hand to the point that he later finds himself out of a job.
Larry sinks into a hole of depression and full blown alcoholism. His company changes to new friends met in dingy bars (with dingy sounding names like Kafunda). Repeated offers of help from his mother, his brother Jeff, his boss and even from his father whom he rarely sees are met with indifference. It is during one of his drunken stupors that he does something that literally changes the rest of his life, though not necessarily for the better, and with it the Artisan’s (and his family) life. He finally agrees to go to a rehabilitation centre. The story takes a drastic and unprecedented turn and ends on a twist that readers will not see coming.
Spirituality and imagery play quite a role in the story. Two mothers that are devout Christians and who turn to God with prayer when their children’s’ lives are threatened, is hardly surprising in a Kenyan story. What elevates the story to above ordinary however, is how Larry, his mother and Malkia the Artisan’s daughter interact with each other. Fate seems to have driven their lives to intertwine on not just a physical level. The composite spirituality sublimely woven into the story vaguely echoes the writing of Salman Rushdie.
I normally do not pay much attention to the architecture of a book. Chapters narrating pieces of Larry’s life like his job, his brother Jeff, his girlfriends and the Artisan reside next to each other. This juxtaposition of different sub stories with different points of views is done with such dexterity that the change from chapter to chapter and from one point of view to the next does not throw you off, but rather intensifies your curiosity. The lengths of chapters are also artfully handled. There is a particular chapter on the Artisan that is only barely a page full. After reading it, the feeling that something epic is about to happen is quite palpable.
Personally, I would have loved to see more depth in Larry as a character. It is not very clear why he slips into drinking even more instead of taking active action, for example changing jobs or going back to his old one. But probably this is the point that the writer is trying to make. Much like depression and other psychiatric disorders, alcoholism cannot be easily explained away.
The biggest kink for me was the typos and the editing (or lack of). When a writer is not up scratch in their skills, it is easy to forgive typos and bad editing. Somehow, you can make yourself ignore those irritating mistakes and carry on reading. But with a writer like Biko, the quality of prose is on a whole different league. A typo or worse, bad editing is like getting into a sleek Ferrari and right at the corner you notice that plush leather is coming apart at the seams. It is like driving in a sports car on the smoothest of highways, the drive is so smooth that you are practically gliding barely aware of the car moving, and all of a sudden you hit the mother of all pot holes. You manage to collect yourself and are lulled into a false sense of safety and just when you have leaned back into the seat to enjoy, it happens again. That is what it feels like reading such excellent prose and being smacked by a misplaced word right in the face. It literary jars you. The flow is gone and you need a second to gather yourself and find the strength to ignore it and carry on. As a (sporadic) writer I know how easily these things can happen. You write a sentence and on reading it a second time you rewrite it before you find an even better synonym and change it again. And boom! The structure of the sentence has changed and you have a tiny little word making a perfect sentence sound like shit. But that is what editing is for.
Drunk is a great little book by a great writer. It addresses a poignant subject with much thought, brutal honesty and sharp wit. The prose is excellent (apart from you know what) and the characters are unique and memorable. There is special shelf in my book case reserved for some of my favorite books by African writers. I look forward to adding Bikos’ there.
Written by: Wambui Waldhauser
Find more of her articles and paintings HERE