There are many things I can't do, ranging from brain surgery through anything to do with science or mathematics to brick-laying and heavy lifting. But most of them I am quite happy without. One thing, though, that I regret deeply is my inability to write a novel. Oh yes, I've tried, many times in the course of my life, but never got beyond chapter one. And it's obviously not that I can't write as I've produced quantities of non-fictional prose. What I lack are the three things absolutely necessary to write fiction -- plotting, dialogue and characters. I expect if I really tried I could produce something just about passable, but that wouldn't do for me. So when I encounter a writer who is absolutely at the top of the pile where those three things are concerned, I am not only enthralled but deeply envious. How do they do it?
Of course all this is leading up to William Boyd. This is the second of his novels I have read in less than a month. I wrote enthusiastically about Waiting for Sunrise a few weeks ago, and now I have just finished Ordinary Thunderstorms. And my goodness did I enjoy it.
This is the story of Adam Kindred. As the novel begins he has just returned to England from America, where he has been living and teaching (climatology) for a number of years, to have a job interview. He decides to treat himself to an Italian lunch, and gets into conversation with a man at the next table, who introduces himself as Dr Philip Wang, a research scientist. As Adam is leaving he notices that Wang has left a folder on the table. Luckily it has a business card in it, so Adam rings to say he will drop the folder off at Wang's flat. When he gets there, he finds Wang has been stabbed with a breadknife, and manages to leave his own fingerprints on it.
The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to throw yourself on the mercy of the police but, for various reasons, Adam does not do this. Instead he goes on the run, and is soon being tracked both by the police and by Wang's killer, the terrifyingly amoral ex-SAS man JonJo Case. So far, then, your conventional thriller. But though the pursuit continues, many strands open up which are at least as fascinating as whether or not JonJo will catch up with Adam. One such is the shockingly immoral behaviour of the big pharmaceutical companies -- Wang was employed by one such, Calenture Deutz, who are on the brink of getting a new wonder drug, promising a certain cure for asthma, certified and on the market. In this strand we meet Ingram Fryzer, the company chairman, a rather harmless multi-millionaire who is blithely ignorant of what the company is up to behind his back. Then there's the doings of London's river police, one of whose policewomen encounters Adam and takes him back to the barge where she lives with her aging radical father and where she and Adam smoke joints on deck.
But most fascinating of all, and, I suppose, what Boyd was really interested in exploring, is the way Adam survives once he has decided to hide from the law. Initially, his existence is about as basic as anyone could possibly imagine -- he finds a hidden spot near the river in Chelsea, makes a very crude encampment, and survives on baked beans and what he can scrounge from dustbins. After some weeks he learns to be a very successful beggar -- even better when he steals a white stick from a blind man -- and later still he is living in a sink estate in Rotherhithe with a prostitute called Mhouse and her son Ly-on, who she keeps quiet with rum and sleeping pills in his breakfast cereal. At this point he has changed his name to John 1603, or rather accepted the name he was given at the Church of John Christ, whose extraordinary, charismatic leader gives 2-hour sermons which are endured by the congregation of down and outs because a hot meal is forthcoming at the end. Then, after another name change, Adam is working as a porter in a hospital, having stolen the identity of a flatmate who inconveniently, or perhaps conveniently, died. I think identity is something that has preoccupied Boyd in most of his writing, and here he seems to be showing how fragile it really is.
I've told you rather more about the plot than I usually do, only because I wanted to give some idea of the amazing depth and breadth of this novel -- and believe me, I've only scratched the surface. I know the novel has had some mixed reviews, but I have to say it stayed in my mind in an amazingly tenacious way after I'd finished it -- and, by the way, the ending is notable for its lack of closure, which has led several reviewers to hope for a sequel, though I don't think Boyd has any plans for one.
And all of this is why I started this post by saying I could never write a novel. I just can't see how anyone could invent such an extraordinary and event-filled plot, or such unexpected and yet wholly plausible characters, or such totally believeable dialogue. But never mind -- luckily there are people out there who can do it for me.