William Boyd Alan Hollinghurst - Essay

Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗