A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 19, 2010

Adam and Evil

This review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS
By William Boyd
Harper, 416 pp., $26.99

We are all Adam's kindred, and in Adam's fall we sinned all. The protagonist of this novel is named Adam Kindred, which is a pretty good indication that William Boyd wants us to think of him as an Everyman.

That's a shrewd move for a thriller writer, which is what Boyd, a versatile novelist to say the least, has become for this book. We all want characters who resemble us in some way, especially when they're put in situations as discomfiting as the one Adam Kindred finds himself in: without a job or a place to live, without the accouterments of everyday life such as credit cards and cell phone, without a family or even an identity, and on the run from both the police and the man who wants to kill him. He becomes a contemporary version of Shakespeare's “unaccommodated man,” not naked on a heath but holed up in the shrubbery on the banks of the Thames in London, drinking river water and eating a snared seagull.

Like the original Adam, Boyd's Adam is a sinner, a man whose moral fittings are not as snug and tight as they might be. And as he meditates on what he did to deserve his suffering, he makes explicit his connection to his ancestral namesake: “One stupid mistake – one lapse, one near-unconscious answering of an atavistic sexual instinct – that was all it took to put a perfectly secure life, a fairly happy and prosperous life, in free fall. Tell Adam and Eve about it, he thought, with some bitterness, some self-reproach.”

How he got this way is, as much as how he gets out of it, is something for the reader of this well-plotted novel to discover, and not for the reviewer to disclose. But plot isn't the only attraction of the novel. It's also rich in setting and characterization. We explore the circumstances of Adam's fall not only from his point of view but also from a variety of others, including an assassin, a policewoman, a drug company CEO, and a prostitute. They all bring with themselves back-stories as intriguing and complex as Adam's, and each presents the reader with a mystery to solve. Why, for example, is the prostitute named “Mhouse”?

And the novel teems with secondary characters, even with what you might call walk-on characters, each of whom is strikingly individualized; they pop into the imagination the way Dickens's minor characters do. Which is as it should be: One of the inspirations for the novel that Boyd has cited is Dickens's “Our Mutual Friend,” which begins with a body being dragged from the Thames. And Boyd makes a Dickens-like use of the city itself, the modern, polyglot, multiracial city that fringes the Thames, its neighborhoods strung out in a panorama ranging from the most affluent to the most sordid.

Also like Dickens, Boyd uses the novel for commentary on the times in which he lives, including the role of the military-industrial complex. The assassin, a veteran of every war since the Falklands, works for a Blackwater-like “security consultancy” firm called the Risk Averse Group. The CEO heads Calenture-Deutz, a pharmaceuticals company that is about to announce a breakthrough cure for asthma and is therefore the object of a takeover by another Big Pharma company. But since truth is not only stranger but also more mutable than fiction, Boyd takes pains not to make his fiction too topical, too bound to a particular year. To add a just-a-bit-in-the-future color to the novel, he invents his own street slang -- “monkey” for crack cocaine, for example, or “green, green peas” as a small boy's expression of delight – which he leaves to the reader to decipher.

As noted, Boyd is a versatile writer. “Ordinary Thunderstorms” is a very different kind of novel from his previous one, the spy thriller “Restless,” or from “Any Human Heart,” his exploration of 20th century history, or from his 1981 debut novel, “A Good Man in Africa,” which earned him comparisons to Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. It may be that this versatility, this bit of the literary chameleon, has deprived Boyd of the kind of fame that comes to the more easily pigeonholed. But all of his books have a very smart author in common. The only problem with “Ordinary Thunderstorms” is that some readers may be so swept along by the thrill of the chase that they may not stop long enough to admire how smart it is.

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