The never-named narrator of A Very Private Gentleman – known to his neighbors as “Signor Farfalla” because they believe him to be a painter of butterflies – is in fact a high-end gunsmith, forging custom weapons for assassins whose targets have included world leaders and wealthy businessmen. He’s chatty, prone to long digressions on his craft, his philosophy of life, his politics, and why we shouldn’t view him as a mere accessory to murder, but when he realizes he’s been spotted and is being followed by a man with unknown intentions he’s forced to reconsider his plans to retire in this Italian village with his call girl/lover Clara.
That part of the book, covering the final quarter, is as gripping as any passage I’ve come across in fiction, very tightly written, but also accelerating the pace of the narrator’s revelations about his own character, constantly shifting the reader’s impressions of his morality and his motivations. He begins pursuing his pursuer, and employing many of the tricks of his trade he discussed earlier in the novel, and the way Booth has set up the big finish there’s no expectation of any specific outcome – any of the central characters could die, and it’s not even clear who’s pursuing the narrator or why until the very end of the book.
The suspenseful payoff made up for a pretty slow first half of the book, where the narrator is so busy trying to tell us about his philosophy – or, perhaps, to impress us with his intelligence while rationalizing his choice of professions – that we get little more than stage-setting. There’s no suspense other than the suspense you get from reading a novel that you know has some suspense in it but that you have yet to encounter within the book itself. It was slow enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book, even though it pains me to put down a book I’ve already started; obviously now I’m glad I stuck it out, but I don’t remember another book with that much lead-up to the Big Finish.
You could, however, read the book as a character study, although that’s a genre I seem to prefer in films over books. The narrator is complex, and fully capable of deluding himself, which could make him, in turn, somewhat unreliable (although we never receive hard evidence that he is). His lengthy tangents on the nature of his job, specifically whether it’s immoral or amoral, expose all kinds of rationalizations designed, I imagine, to help him sleep at night. He’s a man without faith but strikes up a friendship with the priest in the Italian village where he’s working on his One Last Job before retiring, and that priest is the one person who learns something of the narrator’s personality and reasons for secrecy, leading to more probing questions about the narrator’s state of mind. I found the narrator’s thoughts on speaking about religion particularly interesting, since I have avoided discussing religion (and, for that matter, most political subjects) in any forum because it’s like licking the third rail:
I have respect for the religions of others; after all, I have worked for the cause of several – Islam, Christianity, Communism. I have no intention of insulting or demeaning the beliefs of my fellow man. Nothing can be gained thereby save controversy and the dubious satisfaction of insult.
I suppose the Internet would lose about half its volume if everyone followed that dictum.
The problem I had with the novel as a character study is that it’s plodding. You want something to move the story along, but looking backward from the end of the book it’s clear that nothing happened until the Big Finish; the most interesting passages were flashbacks to previous jobs, including two that went awry. But that finish was a heart-pounder, and once the hunt begins in earnest, it’s impossible to put down: Now you know something is about to happen, and therein lies the fear.
The novel was adapted for the big screen and titled The American, starring George Clooney as the narrator (whose nationality is never identified in the book), but with substantial changes to the plot. I understand the reviews were solid, but I have a strong aversion to films that drastically alter their source works without good reason (“the book sucked” being one such reason).
Next up: James Joyce’s Dubliners. Agenbite of inwit, indeed.