I’m reading an old Michael Gilbert novel called End Game which has a rat bastard protagonist. David Morgan is hard-drinking, insensitive, and immoral, a man who comes in late to work, late to dinner, and stays late to search the boss’s office. He picks fights with his girlfriend who supports him financially, deliberately upsets a fussy, older woman at work who rightfully suspects him of slacking off and drinking on the job, sleeps around, and picks the locks of people who trust him to read private files about a business titan named Blackett. He’s a creep. The first time I read the book, I thought, “Why am I reading about this guy?” and kept reading anyway. The next time I read it, I looked at the plot which was as finely tuned as any of Gilbert’s stories. This time I read it just for that bastard protagonist: Why would any reader (especially a woman reader) stay in a story with David Morgan?
After the beginning, David gets worse. He takes his boss on a pub crawl where he insults a big client of the firm, and because he insists on many drinks, they arrive late at the girlfriend’s apartment to find dinner ruined. The girlfriend, Susan, is not amused, there’s a big fight that David starts and then ends when he packs and walks out, leaving a fuming Susan and an embarrassed boss. And of course, he gets fired. Well, he outraged a powerful secretary, insulted a major client, and burgled his boss’s office, what else did he expect?
But by then I knew that David was smart. Very smart. Which means that he must have wanted to get fired. He blackmails the big boss to get a much worse job in a travel firm, and by the time he’s making waves there you know that whatever David is, he’s got a plan. Meanwhile, as David falls in society, Susan rises, promotion after promotion in the business empire run by a man named Blackett. In her spare time, she fields angry, self-pitying phone calls from David that she tapes and then listens to again with pen and pencil. By the time I realized that David and Susan were in something Big together, I couldn’t put the book down.
But that was good third of the way through the book. How long can a writer expect a reader to stay with an obnoxious protagonist who apparently has no redeeming value? I’m not talking about anti-heroes, say Moist in Going Postal, although David clearly is an anti-hero. I’m talking about a protagonist you read about and think, “Ewww.”
I really studied that this time, and I think Gilbert does some subtle things that kept me reading.
- David is not universally mean; he never picks on the weak or the vulnerable, and he always insults up at people in power over him.
- David’s smart; the stupid things he does turn out to be a path to an outcome he wants.
- David is competent; he can pick locks, understand financial files, speak at least three languages, and see trouble coming a mile away.
- David plays fair with women; he doesn’t seduce, he suggests, and while he does tend to suggest sex to women who have information he wants, he makes sure they’re happy about it. My last qualms about David as a womanizer went when he saw a woman in trouble in a bar fight and took her out through the kitchen and escorted her home to her husband without so much as a leer.
- David has a lot of good people who like him; his former boss sticks by him, his old friends rally to him when he needs help, and Susan not only keeps taking his phone calls, she analyzes them closely. If smart, efficient Susan is part of David’s equation, then David is not a rat bastard.
While none of those things excuse his lousy first impression, I think they undercut it subtly enough that I kept reading as the plot began to knot up nicely, following David’s descent into homelessness and Susan’s rise to the top of Blackett’s empire. The narrative clips along and David becomes that gift to story, The Protagonist You Worry About. David is playing a very dangerous game for very high stakes and his antagonist is watching his every move, much more powerful than he is, incredibly wealthy with hundreds of men at his disposal all over the world. All David has is brains, an exhaustible supply of fast talk and faster action, and, of course, Susan.
I’m trying to think of other I-don’t-like-you protagonists I’ve read and stuck with, and David’s the only one I can remember. Moist, as I mentioned before, is likable from the get-go, plus he has a marvelous redemptive arc. I’ve never been able to bear Scarlet O’Hara. Macbeth is fascinating, but you keep reading his story to see him fall, and by the end, I have sympathy for him. I don’t think I ever felt sorry for David, he’s too much of a cocky smart-ass for that, but I was rooting for him, and I think it was a combination of all those buried cues at the start that made me want to read more, with the jet fuel boost of competence porn and an antagonist who was prepared to kill him to stop him.
So here’s a question: What protagonist did you dislike that you stuck with for a whole book? And beyond that, why? How did an author keep you reading an unlikable character? Where do you draw the line as a reader?