William Boyd Essay - Critical Essays

Boyd, William


William Boyd 1952–

Ghanian-born English novelist, short story writer, and critic.

Boyd impressed critics with his first works of fiction, which display a strong command of language and a fine sense of comedy. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), centers on the farcical mishaps of Morgan Leafy, a pale, fat British diplomat in West Africa who despite his bumbling prevails in most situations. The novel, which portrays comic misadventures, yet makes serious observations on the behavior of transplanted English people and their relations with native Africans, is considered both amusing and poignant. Boyd's focus on embarrassment and uncertainty in the character of Leafy, who makes disparaging asides about almost everyone he meets, has drawn favorable comparison with the title character of Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim.

Boyd's short stories in On the Yankee Station (1981) often feature disenchanted protagonists and display the wry humor that distinguished his successful first novel. While many critics feel they lack the overall polish and completeness of A Good Man in Africa, these stories are more experimental than his novel and are considered to represent the work of a young, talented writer developing his craft.

An Ice Cream War (1982), Boyd's second novel, was numbered among the best books of the year by many prominent literary reviews. A historical novel, An Ice Cream War is more complex than A Good Man in Africa, principally because of Boyd's use of multiple narrative voices. Set in Africa during the outbreak of World War I, the novel focuses on the effects of war on a remote African town, where simple, happy people are suddenly caught up in a foreign conflict. The novel has been applauded for its historical accuracy, its human drama, and for Boyd's unflinching insights into the waste and chaos of war.

Alan Hollinghurst

Overwriting is the only thing that occasionally spoils A Good Man in Africa, William Boyd's first novel, and one which is in every other respect highly controlled; Boyd is clearly a comic writer with a very successful career ahead of him. The comedy is of an Amisian cast, focusing on embarrassment and disaster, social, sexual and political. There is no room for sentiment or for the finer feelings, and social manners and political pressures only just manage to clothe and contain feelings of naked revulsion and contempt between the principal characters. The novel has a sweaty tropical setting in which dead bodies rapidly become unapproachable and live ones, even if lusted for, have a certain grotesquery. The protagonist, Morgan Leafy, is pale and fat, and in public and private life (he is First Secretary to a Deputy High Commission) he undergoes a herculean series of labours with varying degrees of failure. Boyd knows his West Africa and recreates it in full and interesting detail.

The middle part of the story, chronologically, is told first, though this seems an unnecessary fidelity to the in medias res catastrophe managed with such virtuosity. Everything that can go awry for Leafy does, and no screw is left unturned. This great thoroughness in pursuing the comic objective has potential disadvantages, and Boyd's manner at times allows extravagance and hyperbole to become automatic…. On the other hand the strong physical identification of the characters displays the more serious gift of using a comic shorthand at the same time as going beyond it to suggest a confusion of feelings, particularly between disgust and lust. The pampered, powdered whiteness of Leafy's boss's wife is viewed with an ambiguous fascination, which explodes in the bizarre final pages of the novel.

Alan Hollinghurst, "Wordy Wisdom," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2602, January 30, 1981, p. 19.∗

D.A.N. Jones

This engaging novel [A Good Man in Africa] about a damn-fool Englishman doing everything wrong in West Africa (Nigeria, lightly disguised) will give pleasure, both malicious and humane, to all Old Coasters. It is stiff with the British tribalism of expats. The hero, Morgan Leafy, is a junior diplomat with the inverted snobbery of an early Amis hero. A lower-middle Southerner, he is infuriated by the mannerisms of his bosses, the upper-middle Southerners. "Good man!" the book begins. "Oh, good man!" The compliment comes from a newly arrived young poshocrat who, Morgan fears, will get on better with the boss and the boss's daughter than Morgan can. "Good man"—like "old boy", "mate", "colonel", "sir" and "squire"—is an endearment used by British males to wound, as often as not. The real meaning of "a good man" is, however, illustrated indirectly, in parenthesis….

Also disliked and punished by Morgan is a pleasingly hearty Welsh paterfamilias called Denzil Jones who slaps his back in the Europeans' club and calls him "Boyo!" Then there is Dr Murray, a righteous Scotsman of the type often called Calvinist in the South, even when neither Scot nor Sassenach has read a word of Calvin. Morgan has to go to Dr Murray when he gets the clap from his African girlfriend, he even tries to jump the queue—and Dr Murray's righteousness is quite hellish. Morgan hates him. Dr Murray is the sort of "good man in Africa" that makes Morgan want to be bad.

His boss, Arthur Fanshawe, is the sort of man who grows daily more interested and expert in his previous posting—rather as British generals are alleged to be constantly preparing for the last war. The Fanshawes have much to tell Morgan about the wisdom of Asia: they have got up their house as a cross between a Buddhist temple and a Chinese restaurant, they teach Morgan Siamese toasts—but they cannot be doing much with Nigeria, its gods and its politicians. It is Morgan who must deal with the priests, Morgan who must worm his way into the...

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Andrew Motion

"If any one theme can be said to emerge from the stories in On The Yankee Station it is a concern with narrative in its varying guises and modes, approaches and methods." William Boyd's publishers are keen to make him hot property—not simply by bringing out this collection hard on the heels of his successful first novel [A Good Man in Africa], but by implying that he is an innovator: a post-modernist trouble-shooter. Boyd himself provides some justification for this enrolment into the avant-garde. His concluding story tricksily exploits the methods by which life becomes art. Its speaker, William (Boyd? or who?), loses his girlfriend to an older brother and compensates for the actual loss in a fictional retaliation. He pushes—or does he?—his brother over a waterfall. Boyd encourages us to admire his playfulness: "You write fiction and what are you doing?", his namesake asks, "You're telling lies, pal, that's all". But as the book's other stories testify, it is very far from being all; neither is it true to say that Boyd's main concern is with the processes and resources of narrative. On The Yankee Station is a collection of eminently readable, entertaining and deeply traditional stories, in which the inclination to fabricate is not self-consciously or modernistically investigated as a problem of the "novel", but granted to characters as a sign of emotional or (usually) sexual uncertainty.

"Hardly Ever", one of the most engaging stories, makes the point comically. A group of public school boys volunteer to sing in H.M.S. Pinafore,...

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Paul Ableman

[On The Yankee Station comprises] short stories which are, with one exception, formidably accomplished. Like William Boyd's first novel, A Good Man in Africa, they reveal no sign of beginner's fumbling. Several of them have already appeared in various magazines and it is likely that they represent Mr Boyd's literary apprenticeship. Apart from the exception already mentioned, all the tales are assured and expert. The feeling of apprentice work derives not from their quality but from their variety. They include a psychological thriller, a touching story of sexual initiation, a sickening (because of its flawless evocation) study of a napalm-happy American pilot in the Vietnam war and the mechanic who hates him, several pieces about unpleasant fat Englishmen sweating in post-colonial Africa, a first-person memoir (in as seamless an American vernacular as Salinger at his best) by a sometime child star on the skids and several others. The impression they convey is of an aspiring author exploring his talent by setting it a variety of literary challenges. So far, so good, and there is no doubt that Mr Boyd, not yet 30, is set fair for a dazzling career. And yet there is something about these stories that disturbs me. They are imbued with a fashionable sense of disenchantment. The author appears to be blasé before he has lived long enough to be genuinely disillusioned. This does not seem a pose but rather the product of that kind of precocity often associated with a public school education. There is no sense of a questing mind grappling anew with experience.

This applies to 12 of the stories. The ominous thirteenth is another matter. It seems an authentically early work. It has an experimental format and is entitled, not very happily, 'Long Story Short'. It is both too...

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Francis King

This second novel by William Boyd [An Ice Cream War] confounds but does not disappoint the expectations raised by his first. Heartlessly farcical, A Good Man in Africa was the brightest work of fiction to emerge from the dark continent since Waugh's Black Mischief. Although it was in no way messy in shape or sloppy in writing, it was one of those books which, products of exuberant improvisation rather than of rigorous planning, seem, like Waugh's own early novels, to have spurted from their creators' imaginations in a single, glittering jet.

In contrast, An Ice Cream War obviously could not have been written without a vast amount of patient digging for information....

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Blake Morrison

Inside every comic fat man there's a serious thin man trying to get out. William Boyd's 'A Good Man in Africa' may not have been the novel for the Eighties it was hailed as (in tone it was a novel of the Fifties), but its flabby, red-haired, heavily perspiring British diplomat, Morgan Leafy, was a memorably funny creation. His second novel, 'An Ice Cream War' (again rather old-fashioned, again compulsively readable), takes as its central figure the slim, nervous, dark-haired would-be aesthete Felix Cobb, who barely raises a smile.

Boyd's subject is the 1914–18 War, his venue the little-known East African front, where German-British hostilities follow a parochial, disorganised but violent course....

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T. J. Binyon

"After Evelyn Waugh came Kingsley Amis; after Amis, Tom Sharpe; after Sharpe, William Boyd"; so enthused one reviewer over William Boyd's first novel, A Good Man in Africa. The dust-jacket of his new, second novel, An Ice Cream War—also set in Africa—places him as a term in a very different and much more old-fashioned progression. "Boyd has taken some of the story-telling and narrative conventions of the novel of colonial adventure—as practised by P. C. Wren, John Buchan and Rider Haggard—and used them for his own subversive ends." In other words, he has changed his spots and has followed a satire by a historical novel, set against the background of the East African campaign of the First World...

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Michiko Kakutani

With "A Good Man in Africa," William Boyd made a precocious debut. Though somewhat derivative of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, this story of a British diplomat's hapless adventures in Africa was told with brio and generous helpings of black humor, and it marked the start of a promising career. Now, only a year later, Mr. Boyd has more than fulfilled the bright promise of the first novel. "An Ice-Cream War" is more ambitious in scope and theme than "Good Man," and it represents Mr. Boyd's discovery of his own voice—an elastic voice that is capable not only of some very funny satire but also of seriousness and compassion.

Played out against the backdrop of World War I, "An Ice-Cream War" examines...

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Robert Towers

Boyd's first novel, A Good Man in Africa …, won three distinguished British literary prizes: the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham, and the John Llewellyn Rhys awards—a reception that must have seemed dazzling to Boyd and that makes at least one American reader wonder about the state of the competition in England. A Good Man in Africa is cleverly and intricately constructed, its various strands pulled together and knotted with aplomb; it is also sexy, nasty, and intermittently funny. But the book seems to me so heavily imitative, in tone and farcical incident, of the early novels of Kingsley Amis that it might well be called Lucky Jim Goes to Africa or One Fat Englishman in Nkongsamba. Boyd...

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