On Obnoxious Characters
A Good Man in Africa
By William Boyd
1981 Hamish Hilton, Vintage International, 2003
Reviewed by Seana Graham
This was a title we picked very much by chance in my book group recently. Some of us had read William Boyd before and liked him, and this happened to be a book that was lying around at our host’s house. I learned even before we met again that one member had disliked it, and so was curious to see how the others in the group would evaluate it. I suspected there would be a divide and I was right. This is because Morgan Leafy, the “Good Man” of the title, is not actually a very good man. In fact, the novel opens with the words which suggest exactly what sort of good man he is.
“Good man,” said Dalmire, gratefully accepting the gin Morgan Leafy had poured him. “Oh, good man.”
It is a very British phrase, meaning something along the lines of “I knew I could count on you to know how to do the right social thing in the moment.” It speaks more to class than virtue. At that moment, Morgan, while outwardly polite, is silently screaming obscenities at Dalmire, who has just proposed marriage to the woman Morgan had designs on. True, Morgan thinks he might actually be in love with her, but Morgan doesn’t know himself very well yet. If you were to hang out with him, you might be fooled into thinking him a decent man, at least for awhile. But his internal monologue is one of querulousness and aggrievement. He is a hard man to like, knowing his actual thoughts as we do. Stuck in a British enclave in a West African backwater, his sole aim is to get out, and all his actions serve that aim. This puts him in an impossible and in many instances hilarious situation, as events cascade beyond his control. Suffice it to say he gets his just deserts.
The members of our group who did not like the book thought Morgan unsympathetic and so found it hard to engage with his story. But those of us who loved the book found a curious transformation happening in our feelings as we read on. We may not have found Morgan likeable but we were brought around to caring about him. I found a clue fairly early on as to how Boyd means us to view Morgan Leafy. In this passage, Morgan is reviewing the day before going to sleep:
He took uneasy, faltering stock of his day. Had he done anything he could be remotely proud of? Had he done anything good? Had he done anything thoughtful, unselfish or unmotivated? Had there been any event that wasn’t directed towards the sole end of furthering the material, physical and spiritual well-being of Morgan Leafy, Esquire? Well…no. He had to admit it: a definite, unqualified no. Thinking back he ruefully acknowledged that he’d been rude, sulky, bullying, selfish, unpleasant, hypocritical, cowardly, conceited, fascist, etc., etc..
Despite his determination to not act from his conscience, it is clear that Morgan does have one.
Another clue is the way Morgan views Dr. Alex Murray, a terse Scotsman who seems to be the only person in the book with any real integrity. Although Morgan views Murray as his nemesis, he actually is a stand-in for the better self Morgan claims not to have. In the end, Morgan Leafy may actually be a good man who lets expedience lead him down the wrong path for awhile. I think whether you find him a sympathetic character depends a bit on how much you can see yourself in his situation. For women readers, it may be a little harder, as many of his exploitative calculations involve women. Our group on the whole was not too comfortable looking at the world from an uncensored and libidinous male viewpoint. But if you can look beyond that, it is not that hard to identify his monologue as something like our own in our less noble moments.
I found A Good Man in Africa to be a very funny novel, reminiscent of some of Evelyn Waugh and of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. I am not always so sympathetic to male narrators who are in a stage of arrested development. But Boyd’s underlying wisdom about his character ultimately allows us to see the good man in Morgan too.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.