When life is just a banana sandwich in a plastic box
IT begins with a death: Lenny Barnes, paralysed at 20, writes to his mother and to his fiancee, and then kills himself before a priest. This suicide frames Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, an ambling, nuanced portrait of lives in the Cornish village of Pendeen.
Each chapter takes a moment in a character’s life history. As we see their marriages and births, hopes and deaths, the stories interweave, form interstices and together provide a study of human experience.
Central to these narratives is Barnaby Johnson, priest, disinherited heir, quiet man of bicycles and country lanes, striving to do good but often failing. His wife, Dot, a farmer’s daughter, bloomed young and surprised herself by settling into parish work. We meet Carrie, the Johnsons’ carpenter daughter, and Jim, their adopted son. There is Nuala, Lenny’s artist mother, lying in her dead son’s bed and ‘‘ haunted by sweet dreams’’. Modest Carlsson, a memorable if cartoonish villain, is pious, oleaginous, the secret village rapist and smut-merchant, whose cruelty to Barnaby is terrible but never known. In the main cast’s stories, Gale introduces a range of minor characters, largely vibrant and well-drawn.
Through the patterns of these lives, Gale crafts a novel of loss, of grief, but particularly, of love. The young Barnaby’s and Dot’s kiss among ‘‘ sea grass and thrift flowers’’ captures first love’s innocence; so too does the teenage Lenny, ‘‘ excited by starlight and having the house to himself’’, emailing Amy his first love letter.
Gale explores illicit love, too: the effects of an affair in a sunny cottage near the cliffs permeate the narrative. Family love in all its many shades is well handled: Gale’s descriptions of the Johnson children’s stoicism amid quiet, middle-class poverty — banana sandwiches in Tupperware while friends all find a cafe — is poignant. So too is his portrayal of family love’s failings: Barnaby’s father, who can’t see the point of a funeral for his daughter; Barnaby, who tries earnestly but fails to connect with Jim.
Finally, Gale’s depiction of love between man and man, woman and woman shines in its reproach of homophobia; in that sense, the novel’s treatment of love plays an important social purpose.
A Perfectly Good Man is, as the title suggests, concerned with goodness: what it means, where to find it, and how the complexities of context can make it shift and alter. Love often forms a crux for characters thinking through how best to live; so, too, does the church, whether they are in it or against it. Gale endorses Christian faith as a source of good but his view is balanced, not universalising. He has awful Christians (Modest, Amy’s parents) and awful atheists (Barnaby’s father), just as he has positive examples of both.
To investigate goodness, Gale also considers evil. The book has rapes and murders, drug abuse, a pregnant woman kicked in the guts. There is adultery and neglect. There are lifelong lies. He reflects more quietly on evil too: for instance, in the tears of Modest’s victim when a sentimental item is thieved and burned for the simple fun of cruelty.
Gale is good at taking scenes of emotional intensity and wringing the most from them. He does so neatly though, generating pathos with more quotidian events and handling the louder acts of violence carefully enough for them to be, in the main, not melodrama but the dark lining of Pendeen’s lanes and fields. A Perfectly Good Man is not, though, a work of literature. Gale has described his novels as being ‘‘ run-of-the-mill’’, and nothing in the prose style of this one dispels that: (‘‘But thanks to what Barnaby had awoken in her, Henry suddenly seemed the manliest man she knew, of course, and the sisterly happiness she felt for him was borne up on little upswells of erotic regret.’’).
To review this book as literary fiction would have been a different project, a critique of authorial and editorial laziness, chunks of lifeless dialogue, awkward phrases, obvious symbolism. It is a shame Gale doesn’t pay more attention to his prose: there are hints here of a much better writer. But a review of commercial fiction should consider what the volume seeks to be instead of cataloguing what, in literature, would be so obviously lacking. This novel, then, should not win literary prizes, but it is powerful and compelling. James Mcnamara received his doctorate in English literature from Oxford. He works as a lawyer in Sydney and is finishing a novel.