Poor Adam Kindred! Everything’s going wrong. Kindred is a climatologist who in a moment of weakness falls victim to the flirtations of one of his graduate students and has sex with her in a cloud chamber. His furious wife divorces him. In an effort to start his life anew, he flies to England for a job interview and strikes up a conversation in a restaurant with a stranger, a doctor named Wang. Wang leaves some papers behind, Adam tries to take them to him and, next thing you know, he discovers Wang in his flat with a knife in his side. Trying to save the man’s life, Adam pulls the knife out, but in the process, inadvertently, kills Wang — leaving his bloody fingerprints behind him.
No good deed goes unpunished. Adam is now a wanted man, wanted by Wang’s would-be killer, by the police, and by the pharmaceutical company for which Wang had been working. It turns out the company has been paying scientists to write favorable articles in medical journals about its new drug, Zembla-4, a cure for asthma that has killed 14 children in clinical trials.
William Boyd has been called a novelist who is good to his readers. And in Ordinary Thunderstorms he presents us with another of the pleasurable, intricately plotted and timely tales we have come to expect from him.
Adam flees and is cast adrift in London’s dark underworld. He eludes his pursuers by literally stripping himself of all the modern appurtenances of identity — his ATM card, his cell phone, his credit cards. He becomes a kind of No-Man, hiding out on the Chelsea embankment of the River Thames and surviving on roasted seagull meat. He perfects the art of begging and hoping for a good meal, he joins a New-Age church, the Church of John Christ, which claims that the Apostle John is actually the real savior. The Church, with its congregation of homeless people, illegal immigrants, and at least one pedophile, is funded by the City Hall Youth Outreach Programme.
Mr. Boyd is a specialist in creating hapless characters and then targeting them with humorous malice — it’s hard to forget Morgan Leafy, the hero of his first novel, A Good Man in Africa, who is, as he describes himself, “rude, sulky, bullying, selfish, unpleasant, hypocritical, cowardly, conceited,” and whose chief interests are beer and sex. Morgan tries to rig his country’s election and fails, then is charged by his boss with the task of getting rid of a smelly corpse.
Ordinary Thunderstorms is full of such vintage Boyd characters, including the prostitute, Mhouse, who, after first kneeing Adam in the groin, gives him her own kind of rough shelter. Among Mhouse’s other tender ministrations is mixing her son Ly-on’s morning cereal with rum and Diazepam to keep him asleep while she goes on her rounds. Mhouse’s pimp and drug dealer, Mr. Quality, (Mr. Abdul-latif Quality), is also head of the Residents’ Association of their ghastly housing project, which is known as the Shaft.
Unfortunately, the character of Adam lacks the juice of these supporting players. He is a rather hollow figure, and never comes quite alive for us. Perhaps this is because he is for the most part the passive victim of other peoples’ cruelties, pursued by all but all too often failing to defend himself as he is robbed, hoodwinked, and betrayed.
Boyd makes up for this deficiency in his main character by his obvious relish for the details of his story. Like Dickens, who is clearly an inspiration here, he has a gift for naming things. The awful pharmaceutical company at the center of the plot is given the oddly globalized, de-nationalized moniker of Calenture-Deutz. The head of the company is Ingram Fryzer, a reference perhaps to Ingram Frizer who stabbed Christopher Marlowe to death in 1593. (One especially good detail involves Fryzer’s morning meditation on whether or not he should wear underwear, because, Boyd tells us, he enjoys the feeling of his genitals against the rough cloth of his trousers.) The corporate raider who wants to take over Calenture-Deutz is none other than a man named Alfredo Rilke.
Boyd also displays in the novel his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of places and things. His novels have been set in locales as diverse as Africa, where he grew up (A Good Man in Africa, An Ice Cream War, Brazzaville Beach), to Uruguay (Any Human Heart), and Belgium and New Mexico (in his last novel, Restless, which focused on an obscure British spy ring in the United States during the 1930s). Boyd wrote so convincingly about the New York art world in his 1998 book, Nat Tate: An American Artist, that he managed to fool some people into believing that his main character was a real person, even though he was completely invented.
In Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd similarly puts on display a vast erudition regarding the city of London in general and of the River Thames particularly. We learn, for instance, that some 600 people disappear every year in London, and that because of the way the tide flow bends, half of all the corpses that end up in it are found in the loop of the Thames south of the Isle of Dogs.
For Boyd, as for Dickens, the Thames, with its refulgent waters and its cleansing tides, is not only the recipient of London’s mortal debris, but also a source of the city’s infinite renewal. At one point, Adam stands at the Kent estuary, where the Thames finally meets the sea. “The great flat expanses of the Kent marshes, with their winding fleets,” Boyd writes, “their dykes and drainage ditches, were on their left, the wide river glinted, with a nacreous sheen, on their right, and their shadows were cast strongly on the path behind them as the sun occasionally broke through the ragged, high film of clouds.”
Adam falls in love with one of the river’s denizens, a female detective who lives on a houseboat with her father, an annoying, dope-smoking refugee from the Sixties and a specialist in Latin American revolutionary studies, who has never even visited Latin America.
At last, salvation may be in sight. But not before Adam, kindred spirit, ordinary, original man, has paid severely for his sins.