An Ice-Cream War
by William Boyd
Morrow, 408 pp., $17.95
The London Embassy
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 248 pp., $13.95
I can imagine an instructive and entertaining essay—written by someone combining the attributes of critic, cultural anthropologist, and antiquarian—on the differing appeals of India and Africa to the British literary imagination. Both, of course, have functioned not only as challenges to explore what seems most alien to the Anglo-Saxon temperament but also as mirrors in which the explorers or invaders have been reflected in some very antic postures. If the Sub-continent has inspired what is still the greatest of such works, A Passage to India, the Dark Continent has undoubtedly attracted the greater number of good writers, a list that includes Waugh, Greene, Joyce Cary, and such partially assimilated non-Britons as Conrad, Naipaul, and Paul Theroux. The latest aspirant to this company is a young Englishman, William Boyd, who was born in Ghana and now teaches at Oxford.
Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1982), won three distinguished British literary prizes: the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham, and the John Llewellyn Rhys awards—a reception that must have seemed dazzling to Boyd and that makes at least one American reader wonder about the state of the competition in England. A Good Man in Africa is cleverly and intricately constructed, its various strands pulled together and knotted with aplomb; it is also sexy, nasty, and intermittently funny. But the book seems to me so heavily imitative, in tone and farcical incident, of the early novels of Kingsley Amis that it might well be called Lucky Jim Goes to Africa or One Fat Englishman in Nkongsamba. Boyd makes his anti-hero, Morgan Leafy, too abjectly contemptible to win even the sneaking sympathy we regularly accord to rogues; one derives little exhilaration from his mischief-making and small satisfaction from his repeated humiliations. The postcolonial British officials and their women are remarkably like the academic types that Amis earlier skewered in both British and American settings, and the rascality of the natives is exactly what we expect.
Stylistically, the novel is heavy-handed, especially in the way in which nearly every recorded moment of Leafy’s baleful consciousness is underlined. He is always laughing “harshly to himself,” remembering “the most achingly embarrassing moments of his life,” thinking “shamefacedly,” and even, in a burst of adverbial excess, reflecting “sour grapily” on his ex-girlfriend’s prominent nose. Did none of the British reviewers or prize givers feel oppressed by this weight of redundancy and cliché?
An Ice-Cream War also comes to us accompanied by transatlantic applause—applause which, though still excessive in my view, seems far more justifiable than that lavished upon A Good Man in Africa. Boyd’s second novel is neither inventive nor profound, but it is a substantial, satisfying work of fiction. Its style is that of a writer confident enough of his effects to refrain from belaboring the obvious. Instead of being directly imitative, An Ice-Cream War is evocative, bringing to mind a generation of writers whose subject matter was the late afternoon of the Edwardian uppermiddle class and its …