| In the midst of the dully compelling puzzle that is William Boyd's "Armadillo" is a minor character named David Watts, a hugely successful rock singer. Someone has to tell Boyd's protagonist, an insurance adjuster named Lorimer Black, that Watts has named himself after a song by the Kinks. Hearing "David Watts" for the first time, Lorimer describes it as "a song about someone who could do no wrong, someone who was revered and worshipped by his peers, someone who, to all intents and purposes, was perfect." Well, no. "David Watts" is a song about someone "revered and worshipped by his peers," but it's sung by someone who will never be David Watts' peer. Ray Davies sings it in the voice of a self-described "dull and simple lad," one whose heart is green as much from bile as from envy.
What does William Boyd's mishearing of a 30-year-old rock song have to do with the rest of "Armadillo"? It sums up his imprecision. There are ample reasons why the singer who chooses to call himself David Watts would hear Ray Davies' song as being about hero worship. But there's nothing to indicate that Boyd himself knows it's about something more. This inability (unwillingness?) is indicative of the haze that hangs over the entire novel.
Haze is different from ambiguity, which still implies some sureness of purpose, and which might suit the subject. "Armadillo" is a book about people who've taken pains to conceal their motives and identities. Many of its characters have abandoned their birth names as if they were unflattering clothes. Lorimer, whose real name is Milomre Blocj, has escaped his ethnic roots and reinvented himself as a young London professional of rarefied tastes. His business, trying to keep insurance companies from paying out the money they've promised, is a con game run with the protection of the law, but Lorimer does his best not to let its unsavory nature rub off on him. His genteel lifestyle is his armadillo's shell. Trouble is, what's beneath it isn't very compelling.
Neither are the plot complications Boyd puts Lorimer through. We can see that the various pieces (the suicide Lorimer stumbles upon; the co-worker who takes a shine to him; the arson case Lorimer is investigating) will eventually fit together, and that keeps us reading. But you never feel like there's anything much at stake.
Boyd's atmospheric vagueness can be exotically entertaining in his short fiction, as it was in his last collection, "The Destiny of Nathalie X," but here he doesn't seem to be possessed by the subject or his story. "Armadillo" is like an exceptionally literate and halfhearted thriller. Boyd doesn't even seem to have fully taken in the current moment. Lorimer is the sort of self-absorbed materialistic protagonist you'd expect in a novel about acquisitive '80s yuppies. Like everything else about "Armadillo," his purchased sophistication feels half-right and terribly, terribly vague.