I WENT crazy this past week and then recovered. The cause was Terry Hayes's thriller, The Year of the Locust. It entertained me for two days in the same way as the Hollywood movie I saw with my mum and dad in Mossel Bay after their retirement. We felt lost, and the film helped by pushing our emotional buttons. I suspect that nothing has changed in my life in the meantime. The buttons are still there. Anyway, the euphoria of the first days of reading was watered down. The book dissolved into mediocrity. And a question mark began to form in my head.
But first, I want to explain why I was in love with The Year of the Locust for hundreds of pages. It's not a deep book, but up to a point it's the best reading entertainment I've had in a long time. It's the story of CIA spy Kane (born Ridley Walker) and terrorist Abu Muslim al-Tundra (also known as Roman Kazinsky). Both are alpha males. The big difference is that one stands for good and the other for evil.
Kane's path intersects with al-Tundra's when he is sent to Iran to help an informant's family flee the country. He is disguised as an Arab. He immerses himself in the role because he can speak Arabic; the expression “inshallah" effortlessly crosses his lips and his eye colour has been changed with the help of prosthetic film. However, the rescue attempt fails miserably. Kane also steps on al-Tundra's toes when he shoots and kills his brother.
Twist in the tale
Now follows an epic hunt, with Kane and al-Tundra exchanging places in the crosshairs. Events move from CIA headquarters near Washington to Afghanistan and Iran. There are episodes on a beautiful Mediterranean island and in icy Siberia. But there's a twist and it threw me off balance. At one point, Kane ends up in the future, and it's a horrific, dilapidated one. Al-Tundra pops up here, too, and their fight continues.
I wanted to climb the walls in frustration because it felt as if Hayes had played a cheap trick on the reader — partly because he glued two stories together and almost got it right, but also because he's so experienced — he had great success in Hollywood with screenplays for Mad Max and other movies. But the marriage of the two genres didn't work for me. I struggle to swallow a suspense story that suddenly veers off into a sci-fi future. It helped slightly that it happened so deep in the book and Kane returned to the present, but the damage was done.
I can only compare the gluing together of two genres to dating someone you are crazy about, only for him to get drunk and spoil everything.
Hayes has a big story set against a big backdrop and he leaves it hanging for a long while. The characters are lovable. Kane loves his wife, Rebecca, and wants a desk job with the CIA in the foreseeable future. He bonds with an old pony in Iran which he christens Sakab. A drop of irony, as it means a horse as graceful as running water. He gets a soft spot for a dog with three legs. He is a protector of the defenceless.
With al-Tundra, the author went crazy. He's a man with an emotional wound and that's why he turns into a monster. There are repeated references to the giant tattoo of a grasshopper on his back. It's probably the beginning of Hayes's process of demonising him, because initially al-Tundra is portrayed as physically attractive. However, it changes drastically deeper in the book. Watch this:
I looked at the enormously powerful frame, the prominent musculature, hairless body and the skin so pale it was almost translucent, that I had seen in New York. If I survived long enough to catch sight of his back, he would have a ridge of hardened skin running down his spine.
What is he suggesting? That the man has become a type of ridgeback dog or a dinosaur?
For the record, Hayes can write like a dream, but this book is a dream gone wrong. I suspect the mega-success of his first book, I am Pilgrim, is the cause. There was probably too much pressure on him after that. I watched a long video interview with him. He writes seven days a week and deletes three out of four words. He searches for emotional truth but in this instance he struggled; the publication date was repeatedly postponed. Hayes says he left Hollywood because his wife said they could start a family only if they did so. But I would say Hollywood is a place he can't get away from — it's in his bloodstream.
A lot of criticism has been levelled at this book. However, as far as I can tell no-one has said anything about the villain hailing from the Middle East. Don't villains come from other places? Aren't there extremists all around us? And isn't it extremist to pretend they're only from that part of the world?
I think the master of pushing emotional buttons, for once in his career, has missed the mark.
Who, what, where and how much?
The Year of the Locust by Terry Hayes was published by Transworld and costs R380 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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