Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

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First point to note: Apocalypse Now Now is completely and utterly insane. As displayed in the synopsis…

Baxter Zevcenko’s life is pretty sweet. As the 16-year-old kingpin of the Spider, his smut-peddling schoolyard syndicate, he’s making a name for himself as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. Profits are on the rise, the other gangs are staying out of his business, and he’s going out with Esme, the girl of his dreams.

But when Esme gets kidnapped, and all the clues point towards strange forces at work, things start to get seriously weird. The only man drunk enough to help is a bearded, booze-soaked, supernatural bounty hunter that goes by the name of Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin.

Plunged into the increasingly bizarre landscape of Cape Town’s supernatural underworld, Baxter and Ronin team up to save Esme. On a journey that takes them through the realms of impossibility, they must face every conceivable nightmare to get her back, including the odd brush with the Apocalypse.

 

Reading that synopsis for the first time is a bit like lifting the lid on a box full of a madman’s ravings, and reading the book is the same. Only MORE MENTAL.

Somehow, Charlie Human has managed to write a novel that consistently (and I do mean on every page) shocks, delights, disgusts and amuses every one of the senses. I thought about summarising the book myself, but really the publisher’s synopsis above does the job just as well as I could. It’s as utterly crazy as it “says on the tin” and easily, in a year where I’ve read Chuck Wendig for the first time, the maddest novel I’ve probably ever read.

In Baxter Zevcenko, Charlie Human has created a main character who is almost entirely devoid of likeability – something which is deliberate and clearly meant to invoke empathy as Baxter’s story develops throughout. I sometimes found that it went a bit too far to make Baxter an utter dick in almost every situation. Even when his moment(s) of redemption comes, it’s a bit moot due to my complete lack of connection to the character.

The rest of the cast for Apocalypse Now Now are a host of the devious, insane and bizarre: often a veritable mixture of macabre and grotesque. Whether it’s the Queen Anansi, a truly disgusting spider Goddess, Jackie Ronin the shotgun-toting bounty hunter or one of the many demonic races we encounter, Apocalypse Now Now is constantly challenging your imagination.

Luckily, Human’s prose more than stands up to the intensity of the weird on the page. It’s crisp, clear and moves at a pace that mostly keeps the constant barrage of bizarre from growing stale and difficult to picture. He also mixes up his prose techniques and tense styles with cuts to in-world magazine articles, newspaper entries and psychiatrist evaluations. It’s a well-structured novel – something which it needed to be to live up to its manic premise.

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But if there’s a problem with Apocalypse Now Now, it’s that the plot seems there merely to hang the strangeness from. The first half of the novel – the more conventional – is in many ways the most interesting. The plot moves immediately, we’re invested in finding Esme with Baxter and it’s a lot of fun. But then things start to fall apart as Human moves away from the focus on the kidnap into bigger and bigger themes that don’t always work, leading to a finale pulled straight from old-school anime that, for me, just didn’t work. By the end I was almost fatigued by the one-upmanship Human seemed to have with himself to keep making it weirder.

I applaud Charlie Human for trying something that’s genuinely different. As much as it sometimes didn’t work, for the most part I enjoyed this journey into the strange world of Apocalypse Now Now’s Cape Town. I really think Charlie Human is going to go on to write some seriously exciting genre fiction, and Apocalypse Now Now is a good start. The book leaves off at a place where a sequel is actually a possibility, and if it happens I’ll be excited to see where Charlie Human takes it. Madcap, outlandish and surreal – Apocalypse Now Now is certainly worth a go if you want something that attacks the senses and feels genuinely original.

Reviewed by: Doug Smith