It must be that at some point Brett Easton Ellis and Martin Amis met up in the subtropical highlands of southern Africa and beyond all biological comprehension spawned a bastard child as a result of an alcohol-infused vacation centered around mutual buggery.
How else to explain The Rotten Oasis but as the result of some aberrant freak of malevolent masochism abandoned to the brutal capriciousness of political tyranny.
For Zimbabwean-born I.M Rowett’s debut novel contains all the bruises and scars that characterise this assumed literary parentage – alienation, self-loathing, misogyny– with the quintessential southern African addition of racial prejudice.
It may also be assumed that Rowett might not care less about this literary placement due to his novel’s echoes of the spiteful debauchery at Appleseed House in Amis’s Dead Babies, combined with its brew of cruel, emotionally disconnected and sexually aggressive frat culture portrayed by Ellis in Less than Zero.
Rowett shows no desire to suck up to this twin colonial and imperial bosom, despite any inherited DNA. In a literary nature vs nurture debate, it could be argued Rowett’s novel reveals an underlying English ancestry in the dialogue, which is often witty if cruel, and American influence in the pace, which is a non-stop barrage of scenes verging on the psychedelic. But the nurture is all African in its unsentimental observation of landscape, and the relationships between characters.
And while the mutual denigration, the trading of insults and put-downs that characterise the malicious characters of Amis’s novel appear to be reproduced among the four rotters who share a digs in Rotten Oasis, there is little of the inter-personal disaffection Amis and Ellis record.
There is a strange bond among Rowett’s group of reprobates. Only they can insult each other (and they do, continuously and with abandon). No outsider has the right, and would be swiftly, and probably violently, dealt with if they tried. Not that there isn’t willfully inflicted pain in Rotten Oasis. It is set in Africa after all, and in Zimbabwe which has seen more than its fair share of horrors. It is just that here the malevolence lies within the state, and it is one that runs deep, and is all-powerful. Amis and Ellis’s characters are psychologically bound to their circumstances, Rowett’s are held in a web of power and politics. And the gleeful brutality that threads throughout is disturbing. As is the absolutely rotten behaviour of this filthy foursome who find themselves blindingly hungover in a boiling political stew. The answer to that, of course, is to carry on drinking. Things got so bad that at one point while reading the novel I had a strong desire to wash the dishes stacked at the kitchen sink in my own house. They are filthy, drunken, obnoxious, sexist, homophobic, racist, cowardly, brave, and loyal. Completely lacking any sense of hygiene. Feral. In short, true to type.
People like this exist. I’ve seen them, even spoken to a few. Rowett appears to have lived with them, drunk with them, even; an activity that can be fatal.
Some editing could be done. This is a print from a fledgling London press and there were one too many chapters beginning with a cringingly blinding babalas. Beyond that, the language punches off the page right from the start, gives no quarter. It is what compelled me to hang out with them, punctuating my speech with crude epithets for the duration. There’s no setting of the scene, pointing out the landmarks. You’ve got to sit down at the table and ‘krind to thead’, or walk away with cruel laughter at your back.
The ripostes are straight from the hip, employing a twisted colonial slang that peculiar to its place: Harare, Zimbabwe; white boys. Circa 2008.
There’s a trigger cocked on every page, and a Twitter storm over the blinding insensitivities in the book is brewing should Rowett be invited to book festivals. But it is not the writer who is a bigot, it is the characters. They are also, at times, hilarious, even as you wince with woke guilt while you laugh. Truth demands no apology.
Yet there is humanity in there. Somewhere in the loyalty, perhaps.
Amidst all the white writing about growing up in Africa, this isn’t it. This is punk. Afro-punk, white boy style.
Unfortunately not available in local bookstores as yet, The Rotten Oasis can be ordered via Amazon UK.