The Man in the Mirror should really be called Man of Straw, especially given that Joost van der Westhuizen’s middle name turns out to be Heysteck. As it is, in an unhappy confluence of demented celebritydom, the book is named not after Joost’s face seen in a powdery mirror but after his reflection in the asinine lyrics of Michael Jackson.

I tweeted the reviewing process of this book live on Twitter, and it was amazing the amount of interest generated.
And sympathy. But reading what less kind critics such as blogger Hurricane Vanessa have termed ‘Joost’s self-serving press release” is actually a pleasurable experience.

This is especially true if you’re a rugby fan, as there’s no substitute for the reminiscences of someone who was as fantastic a player as Joost.

But if you’re a student of human nature, you’ll also find much here to intrigue. You’ll learn, for example, that Joost’s pinkie looks like ‘a small, erect penis”, that he keeps bottle tops in his pocket so he can tell how many beers he’s drunk, and that ‘the failure of Joost’s first marriage can probably be explained by saying ‘don’t get married to your sister’. We also learn that Joel Stransky is ‘every South African’s favourite Jew”, which will come as a surprise to Jesus.

Yep, all fascinating stuff, but spoilt by a treatment that is at best conversational and at worst superficial. What are we to make, for example, of the writer’s claim that ‘perhaps people want to know all the dirt on the stars because it makes their own shabby little lives seem more bearable”, except to sigh?

And then there are the platitudes common to goldfish-like sport commentators for whom every new match is ‘history”. So Rugby World Cup 1995 brought ‘a spontaneous outbreak of unity, the likes of which the planet will probably never see again” (yeah, loved the ironic old South African flags in the crowd), and the 30 minutes of extra time were ‘the most important in the history of South Africa”.

Actually, that last assertion is made with a leavening of humour, and it’s those moments that make the book enjoyable. The description of Amor, suddenly affected by a bad oyster, squatting next to her BMW on her first date with Joost, with her panties pulled down as ‘the universe dropped out of [her] bottom”, is as funny as Joost’s response is endearing—though it does add a new perspective to Amor’s outrage at the Sondag newspaper’s allegations of her nervous flatulence (as they oh-so-elegantly put it, ‘Sy Poep soos ‘n Perd”). And there’s a funny anecdote about Joost being flippant with what he thought was a prank caller, who turned out to be Nelson Mandela.

But when we read Joost’s assertion that ‘the darkest day in South African rugby history was when Mark Keohane was appointed media liaison for the Springboks”, as opposed to, say, Danie Craven allegedly saying that there would be a black Springbok over his dead body, or Johan le Roux biting Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear, or the Geo Cronjé racism incident, you remember the need to question Joost and the book’s perspective. To author David Gemmell’s credit, he does this when detailing Joost’s reaction to Bok coach André Markgraaf referring to black rugby administrators as ‘kaffirs”, which he describes as ‘glossing over the fact that Markgraaf had displayed a nasty, patronising racism ...”

But the author appears to have missed the apparently inadvertent irony of a long disquisition on the evils of Keohane’s ‘turning the rumours mill and manipulation of media”, and how that was ‘a cynical attempt to arrive at a not-entirely-factual or honest outcome”. It’s a bit rich in a book that actively and, it must be said, honestly, sets out to offer Joost ‘an easier way out”.

And although I’m not one to give away the ending of a book, this one probably has a sillier denouement than a Dan Brown novel. The building up of suspense—is that Joost in the video and, more importantly, will he admit it?—is entirely spurious given the insatiable coverage the media has given the story.

It’s also a little odd that this book was written in English. The author betrays a distressing predilection for stereotyping Afrikaners. Apparently, they’re ‘used to hardship and deprivation” and would ‘rather do something than philosophise about it ... It was the nature of the beast.” This is apropos of Joost’s defence of the humiliating debacle that was Kamp Staaldraad, and possibly means that Corné Krige is now an honorary effete Engelsman. There’s also an odd description of Joost’s sense of humour becoming more understated, perhaps ‘more English than Afrikaans?”.

The book tries to interrogate the uneasy dynamic between celebrity coverage and the right to privacy, but is rather more successful at acting it out. So, in a diatribe about the evil of Heat magazine editor Melinda Shaw and her ruining ‘the lovely family life” of Joost’s kids, the author bitchily describes her thus: ‘Melinda Shaw doesn’t have kids. In fact, she doesn’t have a husband.”

The book leaves much unanswered, not least of which is why the author constantly refers to his desire for Joost, whom he girlishly refers to as his ‘NBF” (New Best Friend), to ‘blow his socks off”. Can we expect another video? But although such cheap gibes are easy to make, and let’s face it, irresistible, this is a book that deserves a little more credit.

Like Steve Hofmeyr’s excellent, and far superior, Mense van My Asem, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of the South Africa celebrity. The difference, of course, is that Steve’s book portrays him as rather less ingratiating and desperate for forgiveness.

Chris Roper

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