I find it a little odd that I love boys' boarding school memoirs so much. I'm an American woman who walked to public school every day for twelve years - the British-style boarding school experience could not be further from my reality.
But then I pick up Moab Is My Washpot and I collapse with laughter. Roald Dahl's Boy is dear to my heart. Hogwarts School is my favorite place in Harry Potter. And doesn't J. M. Coetzee attend boarding school in his memoir Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life, which I only remember as being devastatingly naked and sad?
Spud is funnier and sweeter than all these books, even Stephen Fry's. Probably because it's fiction, and thus John van de Ruit gets to leave out all the truly brutal stuff. There is no actual sodomy in this book, for example. Yeah. Boarding school. Never sending my sons there, no matter how entertaining the pranks can be.
But entertaining they are. Spud's ridiculous family, his (at least) half-insane dorm mates and his gargoyle teachers all had me laughing out loud and refusing to tell my family what was so funny. Van de Ruit has a real gift for characterization, and episodes that might have been only moderately amusing are so much funnier because you can hear and see Spud's friends and family in your mind.
It's not all drunken dads and bald cats, though. Spud experiences sincere, transcendant joys and gut-clenching terrors; humiliation, self-doubt, triumph, sorrow, moments of profound epiphany, and times when he is sure he is headed for a nervous breakdown. He is fourteen, after all. Not to mention the fact that he is a white South African boy at an elite school during a time of seismic change in that country.
Spud is what I had hoped Youth in Revolt was going to be. Spud is bathed in golden Subsaharan light like Andrew McCall Smith's Botswana books. Spud's parents are what would happen if Nic Cage's in-laws from Raising Arizona were white South Africans.
One of the nicest threads running through this book is the literature that Spud's English teacher, The Guv (will be played by John Cleese in the movie and really, who else could it be), gives him to read. Landmark books in a young man's life and the subject of excellent discussions between teacher and student. Spud reads The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Rings, The Old Man and The Sea, Oliver Twist, and Enid Blyton's Famous Five.
Nowadays, I might also give a boy Spud.