Book review – Wasted by Mark Winkler

Book Review – Wasted by Mark Winkler

In keeping with my policy of not reviewing books written by friends (which I violated in the case of Bloomlak’s Continental Shift), let me declare that I have never actually met Mark Winkler, but our paths have crossed occasionally on Facebook. I figure that there is distance enough to write this without bias.

A while ago I reviewed We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and was faced with the problem of how to review it without giving away the incident on page 77, which was so off-the-charts that the reader had to utterly re-evaluate the characters, the plot, the narrative, everything.

So it is with Wasted. Something happens on page 62 that is similarly shocking, leaving me to have to dance around it as I write this. So excuse the pussy-footing, I don’t want to spoil.

This is a startlingly original book, and a first person voice of long-lingering and searingly poignant originality (I will think about the protagonist, Nathan, for a long time). The first section of the book introduces us to this amusing, eccentric oddball, who lives alone, sleeps with the lights on, has no friends, labours competently in a junior sales position in an ad agency and has a near permanent erection which is relieved often, by hand or happenstance.

His interactions with people are sparse, taciturn, self-deprecating and somewhat bewildered. His internal world broils with sharp and unique commentary and slightly bent self-reflection and off-kilter brain banter. He is, in short, the sort of character to whom the reader is quickly drawn, in a maternal sort of way. We want him to succeed. We want him to make friends, find love. He is kind. He is lost. He visits an older woman friend sick with cancer often, and with unconditional affection. Yes, he is pretty weird, but he is the sort of guy that I have known and am often drawn to – depth masquerading as oddity. There are the smallest hints of what is to come, but I was never fully aware until later, when it happened.

And then page 62. OMG. I sat up in bed when I hit this page and yelped. Nathan does something. And the book becomes something else – a funny and sad and profound investigation into dark matters from which most of us are happily hidden. I can’t say more. I will ruin it.

The writing is sparse and economic and evocative and acute. The secondary characters, are well-salted and mullti-coloured, and at least one of them (a doomed and insightful murderer named Naicker) is clearly the author’s mouthpiece for the great matters of life and death, a technique to which I am always drawn (I am as interested in the authors’ opinions as I am in characters’ opinions).

Winkler is a local author, but the book is not in any sense ‘South African’ other than in its locale (Cape Town) and he stays mercifully away from tropes of race and history and politics that bedevil many other SA novels. This book is not plot driven – there is one, of course, but it plays second fiddle the far more interesting troubled mind and shattered history and truncated future of Nathan Lucius, as complex and tragic a character as I have read in a long time.

Reading Winkler was an uncommon and unexpected pleasure – this book is very different from other literary fare and its brevity belies its depth. Take a deep breath and go on this morally chaotic journey into dark places with Lucius – you won’t forget him soon.