The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a gay coming-of-age novel by newcomer Jacques Strauss, and that much information alone is telling. If, for instance, you’ve noted that Jack and Jacques are in fact the same name, you may be asking yourself, “Could The Dubious Salvation be an autobiographical first novel?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The 240-pager is narrated by Jack, a handsome and sensitive boy who goes on to earn many degrees, including one in philosophy, just as Jacques Strauss, Jack’s creator, has studied philosophy.
You also may have noticed that the phrasing of the title—particularly The Dubious Salvation part—has a playful quality to it, hinting that we may be in for a dose of lightheartedness, maybe even some laughs and a good guffaw or two. Strauss delivers on the promise. Yet he’s a mature enough writer to keep his youthful impulses in check, ultimately bringing us to a heartbreaking conclusion that is as deadly serious as it is tragic. “If one isn’t careful,” Jack cautions us early on, “one might easily sound nostalgic.”
The biggest reason Jack/Jacques doesn’t want to sound nostalgic is that his setting is his childhood home—South Africa, circa 1989. That’s a whopping combination of place and time, one that many readers will come to with a certain amount of trepidation. They may be fearful—as I was—of betraying their own ignorance. Lucky for the likes of me, then, Strauss is a generous writer. He feeds the readers facts—facts, facts, and more facts—but his style is at once so assured, so gentlemanly, and so, well, English, that it’s a pleasure to digest all the information.
The serious and tragic part of the story goes like this (don’t worry! I’m not revealing too much, though it will seem like I am): Jack lives in Johannesburg. His father is an Afrikaner of Dutch-German descent and his mother is an Afrikaner of English descent. His parents are middle-class enough to provide Jack and his two sisters with a pool, and with Susie, a black domestic who has a long tenure with the family. Susie is an integral part of Jack’s life, so much so that he admits, “I could not imagine how life would be possible without two mothers.”
Nevertheless, despite his deep love for Susie, Jack is also jealous and fearful of Susie’s son, Percy. Percy is a troubled, angry boy who comes to live with Susie and, by extension, Jack’s family. To get rid of Percy, Jack hints to his mother that Percy looks at him “funny.” “It was problem,” Jack philosophizes, “to grow up in a country in which everything was so perverted, even if you had the right political attitude, even if you were inclined toward the right political action.”
But that Jack betrays Susie by employing homophobia is only the beginning of the downward spiral the story takes. To find out more, the reader will have to delve into The Dubious Salvation, which, unfortunately, will often involve trudging through many of the clichés that can weigh down a bildungsroman. In The Dubious Salvation those clichés go something like this: Jack learns about sex. Jack learns about death and dying. Jack learns more about sex—about religion and hypocrisy, Jacks learns about, you guessed it, sex again…
Put another way, The Dubious Salvation is really two novels, the first is almost a young adult novel—a well-written young adult novel, but a young adult novel all the same—while the second is an adult stab at being taken seriously. The first is a sitcom (with Jack providing the voice-over), and the second is an almost an American literary novel of the Deep South, complete with racism and social change. On the whole, the novel more or less hangs together, but my advice to Strauss would have been, Why not leave the boy behind and let the man tell the story?