Sunday October 14, 2012
Book Review: 'A Perfectly Good Man' is quietly brilliant
Review by MARTIN SPICE
An easy writing style feeds the reader a complex tale of what constitutes goodness.
A Perfectly Good Man
Author: Patrick Gale
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 406 pages
THERE are writers who burst into your life with a razzmatazz of the sort that makes you ransack their backlist and rush out to buy their latest book as soon as it is published, and there are writers who quietly snuggle up to you and nuzzle their way into your affections. If my favourite hard-boiled crime thrillers fit the first category, those by Patrick Gale are a fine example of the second.
Gale is not a writer of melodrama and thrills and adventure but a quiet and perceptive commentator on life and relationships, especially family ones; a writer whose grasp of the big picture (in this case, among other things: What is goodness? How do we attain it?) is firmly rooted in our everyday actions. And when you think about it, he is of course right. Goodness for most of us is not the heroics of a gunfight at the OK Corral; it is moments of kindness, support, compassion and generosity. There is no such thing as abstract goodness, it has to be made flesh or it goes the way of all good intentions. Nowhere.
Barnaby Johnson is the perfectly good man of the title. There is of course a slight ambiguity about that wording; perfectly good also implies not quite good enough. Little wonder, then, that Gale prefaces the book with a quotation from 15th century priest/writer Thomas à Kempis: “All perfection in this life hath some imperfection bound up with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some darkness”. The extent of Barnaby’s imperfection is not revealed until well into the book but the opening scene is indicative of some of the moral complexity that is to follow.
As parish priest of two remote country churches, Barnaby is called to one of his parishioners. Lenny Barnes is paralysed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound after an accident playing rugby. Under cover of pouring Barnaby a glass of water, Lenny pours himself a lethal cocktail and drinks it. The fatal dosage of drugs bought on the Internet means he will be dead within five minutes. Barnaby gives him the final sacraments rather than calling an ambulance that he knows will not arrive in time. Does that make him an accessory to suicide, a criminal offence?
At the coroner’s inquest, Barnaby is challenged.
“So let me get this right for the record, Mr Johnson. Knowing Lenny Barnes to be dying, you did nothing to help him?”
“No, I helped him.”
“By prayer. He asked me to pray for him.”
A Perfectly Good Man is divided into sections that are initially somewhat confusing. Barnaby’s life is effectively told backwards, while the stories of those around him are more chronologically straightforward. These include his wife Dorothy, his daughter Carrie and his adopted Vietnamese son Jim, who later insists on being known as Phuc, with all the trauma and re-orientation that shift of names implies. In a wider circle are other local parishioners and contacts including the wild Australian potter Nuala, who is Lenny’s mother, and the book’s most insidious character, Modest Carlsson.
If Barnaby is the flawed good man, Modest Carlsson is the closest thing in the novel to everyday evil. His assumed name is a cover for a past in prison where he served time for a sexual offence, after which he found a new life as a second-hand bookseller specialising in pornography. Physically repellent, Carlsson is an ugly toad of a man who follows Barnaby around masquerading as a faithful parishioner while searching for flaws in his character and performance. When he finally finds one, he uses it to destructive and devastating effect.
Gale has many gifts as a writer. The first is an easy, mellifluous, fluent style that is seductively easy to read. In fact, so easy to read is Gale that I wonder sometimes if this, perversely, has had an adverse effect on him being taken as the serious novelist that he actually is, prepared to tackle complex and difficult themes.
But perhaps the finest of his qualities is that he writes with utter authenticity about family and relationships. Time and time again in A Perfectly Good Man I was aware that his analysis of and reflection on his characters’ emotional and spiritual lives rang completely true.
There is an elevated ordinariness about Barnaby that is completely engaging as he searches for the way to be a good man, while knowing in his heart that he falls far short of what he would like to be. Tolerance, kindness, compassion – these are the qualities that Barnaby has to access, the sharpest tools in his priestly toolbox, but they do not make for an easy life and they are not fit for all purposes.
I need hardly add that I was gripped and impressed by A Perfectly Good Man and it reminded me of how much I had enjoyed Gale’s earlier Notes From An Exhibition.
Slowly but surely Patrick Gale is moving from my “snuggle up and nuzzle” list to the “must have as soon as it comes out” list. Read this and you will know why.