Noah’s preface summarizes South Africa’s linguistic situation. There are eleven official languages, with English and Afrikaans included by default, as the languages of power and the white minority; Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Ndebele are major native languages; while Swazi, Tsonga, Venda, Sotho, and Pedi are less widespread. There are “dozens more” local African languages too small “to demand recognition.” People are constantly communicating in multiple languages, sometimes at the same time, translating as needed and somehow managing to keep the country functioning.
South Africa’s linguistic chaos reflects both its remarkable diversity (with each local language officially recognized) and its need for political integration (which leads business and government to rely on English). All communication is cultural negotiation, and while Trevor speaks a remarkable array of languages, he can still by no means understand everything said in his country.
Trevor has “a mini-empire” by the end of high school: using the computer he convinces his mother to buy him “for school,” he pirates CDs to sell at school. He also looks at plenty of pornographic photos.
Just like he did to become the “tuck shop guy,” Trevor exploits his outsider-insider status and business savvy to continue making money and friends at the same time.
Prom is approaching. All Trevor knows about this “strange ritual” is that it is usually when people lose their virginity, and as usual he does not expect to have a date for it.
Trevor also remains uncomfortable about his romantic prospects as another high school “ritual” forces him to interact with girls.
Trevor has two friends involved in his CD scheme. One is Tim, who (like Teddy) is the son of a domestic worker, but goes to “a proper ghetto school” called Northview, where he sells the CDs. Tim is also a “real hustler” and a habitual liar. One day, Tim takes Trevor to a middle-of-nowhere black settlement called Hammanskraal, for a talent show and insists he wear his Timberland boots—the “only decent piece of clothing [Trevor] owned,” which all his peers envied. At the talent show, Tim announces “a rapper all the way from America” and forces Trevor onstage, because “they’ve already paid me the money.” Trevor refuses, but Tim insists that he is doing it for a girl, and also that “these people don’t speak English,” so Trevor can say whatever he wants. Trevor makes up rough lyrics as he goes along, and the crowd goes wild.
Tim’s scheme playing Trevor off as an American rapper shows how much of status and power are arbitrary: Trevor has the right boots and speaks English, so people will believe he is both famous and American. Tim puts profit and self-interest above all else, even (or especially) among his “friends,” whereas Trevor strives to combine money and people them in mutually beneficial ways, without taking advantage of the people with whom he does business.
Another time, Tim comes to Trevor’s house and they chat about the dance—Tim promises he can get Trevor a date (in exchange for a better commission on the CDs and some free music). Trevor agrees but insists “it’s not going to happen.” Tim promises “the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen,” who will make Trevor “a superstar.”
Trevor already knows not to fully trust Tim, whose promises tend to be too good to be true, but he ends up taking Tim’s deal precisely because he still does not believe it possible for him to have a beautiful date to the dance.
Astonishingly, Tim shows up a few weeks later with good news—even though Trevor is sure he is lying. Tim takes Trevor into Johannesburg, where they see a girl leaning over her balcony (“the girl’s sister,” whom it later turns out Tim is hoping to sleep with) and then meet a “really, really enormous, fat woman” inside (“her older sister,” one of three). Babiki, Trevor’s date, comes home after ten minutes, and Trevor is stunned, “dumbfounded,” with “no idea how to talk to a girl that beautiful.” Tim introduces them, helps them coordinate logistics for the dance, and escorts an ecstatic Trevor out.
Astonishingly, for once Tim follows through with his promise, and Trevor finally gets the shot at romance that he has been waiting for; for the first time, he feels like any other normal student rather than the outsider-insider he usually is at school. Of course, Tim is also thinking about his own self-interest, and he coordinates the entire interaction between Trevor and Babiki, which soon proves transformational in their relationship.
Tim and Trevor visit Babiki’s family some more in the next few weeks; they are from the smaller Pedi tribe and try to look rich, buying expensive clothes despite their poverty, which is not uncommon in South Africa. Trevor and Babiki never see one another alone, but he is “in heaven,” feeling like he finally has a girlfriend. But with the dance nearing, he begins to worry. For one, he lacks a car—Abel agrees to loan him one that he is fixing up, and then, after Babiki comes over for a visit, Tim persuades Abel to loan Trevor his BMW.
Babiki and her family cope with their poverty in the opposite way as Trevor and his mother: they buy expensive things to project an image of wealth but lack money for their necessities (while Patricia refuses to buy Trevor new clothes even though they can afford books and live in a comfortable suburban home). Trevor fawns over Babiki from a distance, even though they actually do not know each other, and (much like on Valentine’s Day) sets about making preparations for what he imagines as a perfect realization of his peers’ romantic scripts.
Trevor also needs new clothes, especially since Babiki is so fashion-obsessed; he has terrible taste but convinces his mom to pay for a new outfit. He enlists Sizwe, his other CD reseller, to give him a makeover. He buys one expensive leather jacket and various cheap articles to round out the outfit. Then, Sizwe sets out to replace Trevor’s unruly afro with cornrows—first, the woman at the salon has to chemically relax his hair, which feels like “liquid fire” and leaves burns all over his scalp. But it works and, six hours later, he has cornrows and is delighted to look in the mirror. At home, his mom exclaims, “they turned my baby boy into a pretty little girl!” She teases him and asks if he is gay, but the whole family approves.
Even if he stumbles awkwardly through it, Trevor’s makeover suggests that he might be able to make the transition from outsider to popular kid. By finally paying attention to his appearance, he also begins to empathize more seriously with women, especially when he burns his scalp with the chemical relaxer. Meanwhile, his mother’s jokes serve to remind Trevor that they have always prioritized experiences and knowledge over external appearances and material wealth.
On “the big night,” Trevor goes to get the BMW keys from Abel, who is completely drunk. First, Abel makes Trevor buy him beer; then, he refuses to give him the BMW and leaves him with “the shitty Mazda.” Trevor gets to Babiki’s house an hour late, and she is beautiful but furious. They then get lost and spend more than an hour driving around in circles. Finally, they arrive, but Babiki refuses to follow Trevor inside. Trevor finds Sizwe, who brings a crowd of 20 other boys out to gawk at Babiki “like she was an animal at the zoo.” Trevor is mortified and starts drinking.
Abel’s drunken recklessness again derails Trevor’s life and erodes any remaining trust between them; just like on Valentine’s Day, everything imaginable goes wrong despite Trevor’s meticulous preparation. Worse than merely being excluded from the normal prom festivities, his failure becomes a spectacle for the whole school, solidifying his status as an outsider. Of course, he does not yet wonder what Babiki must feel, showing the limits of his empathy.
Sometime later, Sizwe tries one last time to bring Babiki inside and instead tells Trevor she definitely does not speak English. And Trevor realizes that he has never even talked directly to her, that he does not even know what it means for him to have a “girlfriend.” Their communication “was always through Tim,” who speaks Pedi. Babiki’s sisters speak English, but she does not, and Trevor is used to missing parts of any conversation in South Africa—he remembers everything in English, no matter what language it happens in first. He realizes that Babiki “probably owed Tim a favor,” and is “probably terrified” after being stuck in an hour in the dark with a man she does not know and taken to a place full of strangers who cannot speak her language.
For the only time in the book, Trevor’s language abilities completely fail, reflecting South Africa’s residual ethnic fragmentation after apartheid, especially because multiple generations of people never had the opportunity to interact outside their language group. Now, Trevor sees his night in a completely different light, imagining it from Babiki’s perspective and realizing that his innocuous mistakes probably dredged up her deepest fears simply because living in South Africa often means confronting the constant possibility of violent assault.
Trevor tries “every language I knew” and asks everyone he can find if they speak Pedi—nobody does. He spends the rest of the night in the parking lot and drives Babiki home in silence—whereupon “she leaned over and gave me a kiss. Like, a real kiss, a proper kiss.” Trevor is baffled and waves her goodbye.
Just when Trevor convinces himself that Babiki probably resents and fears him, she gives him a kiss that shows him how little he understands about romance.