I met Patrick Gale many years ago when I worked for Waterstone’s. He was reading from his new book Rough Music. I was on beverage duty, serving drinks from a make-do trolley that thirty minutes previously had been loaded with that months 3 for 2’s. I can’t honestly tell you I miss stickering and de-stickering piles and piles and piles of must-read paperbacks.
Anyway, back to the story. Patrick (we’ve met so I feel on first name terms with him) was a true gent. I, on the other hand, turned into a terrible liar. You see, he mentioned he was friends with Armistead Maupin and being eager to please I exaggerated a brief occasion when I met Maupin in San Fran. I was on a walking tour and he knew the tour guide and came over to say hello. Those brief moments in Maupin’s company became a lengthy discussion about his life, influences and future plans but I’m pretty sure Patrick could tell I was exaggerating!
Meet the Author events can be a hit and miss affair. If the author doesn’t match how you’ve imagined them to be it can really put you off their books. Patrick was exactly how I hoped he would be; charming and funny. I really enjoyed hearing about his then new life on a Cornish farm and how this influenced his writing. And in his latest book, A Perfectly Good Man, the isolation and close-knit community of the Cornish countryside is the perfect setting.
A Perfectly Good Man explores what it means to be good. The novel begins with the suicide of a young man and the impact this has on Barnaby Johnson, an Anglican priest, and his family and friends. The implications this event has on a small community is told from the perspective of a rich cast characters. The story is told in a non-linear style. Gale selects key moments from different stages of each characters life. These moments are perfectly chosen and are not quite as random as you initially think. Each moment reveals more and more about these characters and the actions that eventually lead to a young man’s suicide.
It’s the character of Modest Carlsson that lingers in the mind. I began to sympathise with Modest, to be drawn into his increasingly pathetic life and even felt saddened at his treatment following a brief fling with an underage school girl, for it was this incident that determines the downward spiral his life eventually takes. In Modest, Gale has created a complex character whose destructive obsession with Barnaby is a dark thread running through the entire novel. He is vile, hateful and utterly spiteful but such a memorable character.
This is a powerful and carefully written novel. It is not an easy read. Barnaby’s adoptive son and his descent into drug abuse is deeply tragic especially set, as it is, against the background of Barnaby’s troubled marriage and family life. Modest’s unhealthy pursuit of Barnaby is deeply disturbing and the conclusion to this murky tale offers little redemption. In fact, the last two chapters were difficult to read.
There are no easy answers or convenient resolutions. Life is never that straight forward because, even with the best of intentions, no one can be perfectly good all of the time.
A Perfectly Good Man has been shortlisted for The Green Carnation Prize, a literary prize celebrating LGBT Writing. Each year I read the shortlist and discover some wonderful writing. The judges chose books that may surprise you and often challenge you too. A Perfectly Good Man is no exception and one I am very pleased to have read.