There’s a particular strain of English mildness that carries within it a finely wrought undercurrent of viciousness. It’s there in the title of Patrick Gale’s new novel, A Perfectly Good Man, which you could either take literally – that Barnaby Johnson, priest to the Cornish parish of Pendeen, is perfect in his goodness – or as a tight-lipped rebuke, that he is adequate at best.
As if to harry us into taking one of these positions, the novel kicks off with what is, for this writer, something of a shock opening. Barnaby is visiting a parishioner, 20-year-old Lenny, who is confined to a wheelchair following a rugby injury. Lenny doesn’t want him there for a chat; he wants him there while he kills himself, drinking a sedative bought on the internet. The “goodness” of Barnaby’s behaviour, calmly administering extreme unction rather than scrambling for the telephone, is left deliberately ambiguous. It’s a foolish reader of Gale’s novels who rushes to judge one of his characters: the careful management of our sympathies is what he is all about.
The book continues in a highly erratic manner. Each chapter comes with a title giving a character’s name and an age, but as these are arranged anything but chronologically, it takes time to work out exactly when the events occurred. Gale’s jumping around in time and perspective is an intricate, circling dance around this central figure of the priest. He acquires a wife, Dorothy, a daughter, Carrie, and an adopted Vietnamese son, but Gale holds off giving him real depth for much of the novel.
Our curiosity regarding Barnaby is given obese form in one Modest Carlsson, a loner obsessed with finding some fault in his priest. He habitually turns up at his most out of the way services, where he is often the entire congregation. For all the slow-burning humanity of the novel, it is striking that Gale has had to concentrate so much malevolence in the figure of Carlsson, whose attempts at doing evil always somehow end up doing good. The book is guaranteed to give the reader a warm glow, but in that there is something Panglossian: the idea that redemption awaits us all, as surely as it does so many of Gale’s characters.