Moffie by Andre Carl Van Der Merwe (Europa Editions, $15 trade paper, 9781609450502, August 30, 2011)
Nicholas van der Swart is 19 years old when he's drafted into the Apartheid-era South African army to serve his two years' mandatory military service. So was Andre Carl van der Merwe, the first-time author of Moffie, a harrowing military nightmare and painful coming-of-age story. Conscripted to fight for and serve a country that degrades gay men like himself as "moffies," where a kiss between men is violently punished, Nicholas lives in terror of being exposed. Brutalized by his father for being too gentle and sensitive, Nicholas has lost the anchor he once clung to: his beloved, affectionate older brother, killed in a car accident. He's forbidden to seek emotional shelter in the warmer company of blacks, bullied by uncles and cousins who respect only the harsh masculine code of aggression and dominance, unable to prove himself in killing springboks and baboons. Nicholas dares not reveal his secret to anyone, knowing that the thing his parents most despise is what he is. Moffie is van der Merwe's fictionalization of his two years in the infantry during the Angola Bush War, "forced to kill people I don't know, for a cause I don't believe in." It's a survival story and though we know that Nicholas, our narrator, lives to tell the tale, not all the characters you grow to love in this electrifying debut are as lucky. From the sadistic fury of vengeful officers and body-crippling exercise drills to the spirit-breaking final physical tests and the terrors of combat, Nicholas somehow manages to survive, clinging to sanity one day at a time with the help of his best friend, Malcolm; Ethan, the boy he adores; and Dylan, the lovely young poet from a wealthy family who falls in love with Nicholas. Van der Merwe skillfully re-creates the emotional gauntlet Nicholas has to endure in his search to find himself, going back to the boy's first sexual awakening, his poignant encounter on the beach with a handsome philosopher hippie. In his passage to adulthood, Nicholas experiences the pathos of the "outed" biology teacher, Mr. Davids; the seething brutality of Sergeant Dorman; sparring and shared humor with his friend Malcolm; the hesitation and lost chances with Dylan. In an insane military world stretching from beds so immaculately made that no one dares to sleep in them to the bloody atrocities of the battlefield, Nicholas is tested to his limits and emerges the strong and honest man telling you the story. His ordeal makes compelling, first-rate reading. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf-Talker: A 19-year-old gay man in the South African military endures brutality and repression in his courageous journey toward self-acceptance.