Spud – Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the fourth and final installment in John van de Ruit’s highly successful (at least in South Africa) Spud-series chronicling the adventures of one self-conscious teenager as he navigates the perils of boarding school.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, John “Spud” Milton is a South African boy from a middle class family in the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg. He wins a scholarship to attend Michaelhouse, a prestige boarding school left over from the days of British colonialism. Spud differs from the other boys in the school as his parents aren’t wealthy (or classy) and when the first novel starts he also hasn’t yet hit puberty. And he keeps a journal. In fact, that’s what we get to read, as the novels are written in the style of Spud’s personal journal, one novel for each year in the school.
It could merely be the long gap between reading this novel and the previous ones, but from page one this novel felt different than the previous ones. Spud arrives for his final year at school a prefect and with much more confidence than he exhibited in earlier years. He is now a young man, no longer an insecure pre-adolescent boy, and it shows.
The feeling of something different is maintained throughout the novel. There’s no mention of politics or student societies (which were very prominent in the first three), and Spud’s regular visits with The Guv (his English teacher, played by John Cleese in the movie) also receives very little attention. School receives much more as Spud struggles to pass his final exams – he can hardly be the first scholarship student in the history of the school to fail, can he? He also finally comes into his own on the sports field, winning the respect of his peers in the process.
What does remain the same is Spud’s ongoing obsession with girls and the desire to lose his virginity before he finishes high school, as well as the madness of The Crazy Eight, the nickname given to his year group in the dormitory. Also the humour. By page three I was already laughing so loudly that I had to share snippets with the wife so she’d stop looking at me funnily.
I still can’t figure out whether it’s the way Spud sees his world or if it’s simply how insane his world is, but you cannot help but laugh at the tales he tells. With the exception of the protagonist the characters are all a bit larger than life. Some are outright caricatures who can’t possibly exist in real life. From the Crazy Eight who includes at least one boy who’s certifiably insane, a possible future murderer and a possible current pimp, to the teachers who aren’t much better, to Spud’s own demented grandmother and possibly suicidal (if you consider his driving habits) father. Normally this would bug me in a novel, but in this one that works. You never know what to expect next from this unusual cast of characters and what you get is seldom what you expected.
One possible drawback of the novel is that the context is very South African, which might be a problem for foreign readers. On the other hand, it’s about a boy and what he goes through in the journey to become an adult, and that’s a universal thing, isn’t it? However, I would advise anyone thinking of reading this novel to read the preceding three first, as there are several references to events from earlier years and the journal format means the narrator can’t recap them in-text.
Spud – Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a fun read. I doubt whether I’d re-read any of the books in future, but I’m glad I took the time to read the last book in the series. I laughed out loud at times and at the end, when Spud had to say goodbye to the school that had been his home for four years, I had to pick away a tear. Any author who can do that gets a win from me.