John Hunt (according to his bio, some sort of legend in the world of advertising) has written a sneaky third novel.
You Never Really Know is sneaky in the sense that it creeps up on you, gets under your skin, and then rips the rug out from under you. You never really know where it’s about to go, nor if what you’ve stumbled into is a farce, a political thriller or a romantic tragedy. In some ways it’s a parable.
It grips you, though, and keeps you guessing. And it does so while urging your consciousness to expand. It constantly cultivates a kind of empathy that makes it something far greater than merely a well-polished, highly entertaining story.
Hunt’s talent is for integrating the slightly fantastical into a wholly recognisable reality. His entire story plays out within an isolated world. The setting is the six-acre unofficial residence of the President of some unnamed African nation – presumably our own, given that he is considered the most powerful man on the continent.
It’s within this insular world that our protagonist-narrator has spent his entire life, having been more or less born into his position, first as laundryman and now, as the story unfolds, barista to the President.
Whether by coincidence or by virtue of poetic soothsaying, he has acquired the name Cappuccino. And so it is as if destiny itself had intended him to one day work behind a coffee counter. In all other respects, though, he is somewhat adrift. Orphaned as a boy, he has no idea who his father was, has no official papers, and rather ridiculously inherited his position on the household payroll.
His older fellow employees have each played some part in his upbringing, stepping in as a surrogate family.
Cappuccino suffers a specific form of agoraphobia rendering him incapable of leaving the property. So he lives overwhelmingly in his imagination, much of which has been furnished by makeshift school lessons he’s received from the officious, weirdly caring household manager.
Since the arrival of WiFi he’s had Google to further expand his horizons.
Within this closed reality, Cappuccino is an utter innocent, naïve to the ways of the world, yet possessing an inexhaustible curiosity. He applies his mind to matters of fact, as well as questions of morality. The internet, while an infinite repository of information, a place where he can find step-by-step instructions and even access dating advice, does not dispense real-life experience.
Which is where the President – known among the household staff as CBC, or Chief Boss Commander – comes in. This almighty ruler is introduced to us fairly innocuously, as a likeably potent man with an expansive belly and a matching laugh (“Ha, ha! Ha, ha! Ha, haaaa!”) which he uses to seize the attention of roomfuls of fawning underlings. And he’s smooth enough that his predilection for extramarital flings passes for acceptable behaviour.
Also swept under the rug is his more tawdry sideline hustle: procuring pliant sexual partners for the leader of some or other “more conservative African nation”. It is, after all, done in the name of diplomacy, a means of securing political support. And, like his other indiscretions, can be cast off with that knock-em-dead laugh of his.
So, yes, there are hints that CBC bears more than a mere physical resemblance to the Napoleonic equestrian portrait he has of himself above his king-size bed. But when he enters Cappuccino’s life, he is all well-meaning warmth and irresistible charm. He bestows upon the newbie barista his own personal nickname, and keeps “Cuppo” in his confidence, calls him his friend, even gives him a pair of his own leather shoes.
But such kindnesses also give Cuppo a sense that he may be a part of some bigger story, that he surely has a more significant role to play in the Chief Boss Commander’s tale.
Little does he know.
The story in fact takes an early turn when a certain minister – considered a moral voice within the President’s cabinet – is discovered with the top of his head blown off.
Although the suicide investigation soon blows over, something is amiss. A member of the household staff suspects that a hyena is haunting the kitchen. And there are increasing numbers of gatherings – some more official than others – at the unofficial residence.
Meetings turn into fancy dinners with sommeliers proffering expensive wines and cigars indulged in around the pool. And the residence’s security detail engages in increasingly heavy-handed tactics.
While Cuppo registers awareness of some vague political intrigue, he is distracted by his rather more intimate infatuation with the President’s young assistant, Naomi.
But she is destined to remain a distraction. Cuppo is too passive, too shy, too polite, too unworldly to make a move. Even the President knows his barista has eyes for Naomi, and crudely encourages him to pursue her.
But Cuppo remains inert – he fatally waits for Naomi to make the first move, sharing with us instead his fantasies of dates they might go on, detailing the sexual escapades that happen inside his head.
It is this inertia, his inability to act, which is Cuppo’s major flaw. In this respect, he’s contrasted with Duku, the stump-limbed, street-dwelling (presumably Rwandan) refugee who is currently encamped on the pavement outside the presidential residence. Horrifically mutilated as a child during the genocide, Duku is a survivor who makes the best of his ghastly predicament – and who seems to revel in his freedom despite having nothing.
Hunt’s book is, after all, about underdogs. The meek and the powerless. And about how the smallest among us is capable of affecting – and significantly altering – the status quo. Doing so, however, requires action.
Of course, before taking action, one must first recognise that there is a problem.
And it takes rather a lot to make Cuppo register that all is not as it seems.
When honest-to-god wickedness finally reveals itself, though, it is an ugly evil indeed that rains down on Cuppo, ripping his reality to shreds.
And it is an evil supported by a cast of delightfully wicked bit-part players. There’s the Right Honourable Bishop Rolling Thunder, a puffed up religious bigwig who receives word from God that he’s due for a promotion as the head of some ridiculous, phoney church. And there are the dumb-as-a-plank boom-gate security guards, secret service agents and bodyguards, all of whom act in pliant service of the corrupt power they enforce.
And, at the centre, there is CBC himself. It is, ultimately, his job to bring some real-life experience crashing down into Cuppo’s cloistered world.
With each crushing crash, Cuppo’s reality is shifted, altered, and finally shattered, until at last he is able to see the truth quite clearly.
It’s a revelation. Perhaps a revolution. Because, until the blinkers are removed, Cappuccino is trapped, destined to remain a kind of indentured, genuflecting servant. His only escape is to rewrite the story – truthfully – with himself as its hero.
As I said, it’s a sneaky book. And a rather extraordinary tale of how the human imagination can be summoned to defeat evil.
Or can it? You never really know. DM/ML
John Hunt really is an ad agency legend. He’s Worldwide Creative Chair of the TBWA advertising agency network and author of The Art of the Idea, which has been translated into several languages. His previous novels are The Space Between the Space Between and The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head. You Never Really Know is published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House.