Lucky Jim and The Old Devils

Lucky Jim I can’t really say which is the greatest novel I ever read, or my favorite, or even the worst one I actually finished; there are too many candidates for each slot. But when it comes to the funniest, one stands alone: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, first published in 1954 and countless times since, most recently as a New York Review Books Classic with an introduction by Keith Gessen. This is not to elevate Amis above P. G. Wodehouse, Flann O’Brien, or Charles Portis, for they are the three greatest comic writers I know of. Sui generis in style and imaginative genius, at their best each is more than just funny, soaring above Amis into the empyrean where comedy transfigures reality.

At the same time, it is precisely the sublunary nature of Lucky Jim, its perfectly calibrated shallowness, that gives its humor physical force. Amis’s friend Philip Larkin, to whom the novel is dedicated, said the book sent him “into prolonged fits of howling laughter” but then delivered a backhander, saying that its author suffered a “general thinness of imagination.” There is more than a little begrudgery in that statement, and what Larkin deplored (or claimed to) is that the book is satirical. And so it is. Even though the characters are based, in most cases and most uncharitably, on actual people, they are exemplary rather than real. Be that as it may, their body language and unfetching little ways are depicted with such astounding precision and evoked with such an exuberant whimsy of simile, that it is impossible not to crack up even after repeated readings.

Jim Dixon is a lecturer in medieval history at an English redbrick university, with justifiable misgivings about his future. Whether he will be retained, and presumably make his way in academe, lies in the hands of a Professor Welch: ponderous, unpredictable, conceited — and, most horrible of all, a devotee of medieval music who plays the recorder. Jim, the very model of the hapless hero, has his troubles further compounded by having become entangled with a fellow (though senior) lecturer, Margaret, the sort of woman who insists on calling him “James” and is, moreover, a virtuosa of the guilt trip. A number of other characters circulate through the pages, including the men who share Jim’s lodging house: Johns, an office worker at the university whose unloveliness is amplified by his being an amateur oboist; Beesely, a member of the English department who smokes a pipe, “round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis”; and Atkinson, an ex-Army major and insurance salesman whom Jim admires “for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom.”

A ghastly cultural weekend at the Welches’ house introduces us to the professor’s son, Bernard, an artist with a beard, sandals, and high estimation of himself, and his girlfriend, Christine, a beautiful blonde with a strict demeanor, small waist, and large breasts. There is no mystery where the plot is heading on the romantic front, but it is a journey that passes through a lovingly assembled array of tediousness, fatuousness, and self-importance, offering such highlights as the insufferable Bernard smiling “among his beard” and the “the tinkle of tiny silver bells,” which is the sound of Margaret’s affected laugh. Besieged by it all, Jim develops an irresistible craving for alcohol, with results that emerge as brilliant comic set pieces. I will not quote from these, in order to leave them fresh and within their perfectly rendered venues and circumstances. But I will say that, while literature is replete with scenes of drunkenness and its aftermath, none has ever matched Lucky Jim‘s description for accuracy, panache, and a certain faux tact that saves the whole business from mere slapstick.

Contempt and boredom and their supposed palliative, alcohol, are elements in most of Kingsley Amis’s fiction. Lucky Jim takes an ebullient approach to all three; we sense how truly happy instances of po-faced solemnity, self-regard, and the covert aggression of the bore actually make its author, at least after the fact. In their correspondence, Amis and Larkin regaled each other with accounts of such crimes, with Amis waxing ecstatic with outrage over his father-in-law, the model for Professor Welch. (“Is there anything more annoying in its way than having your pencil taken off you — and not returned unless you ask for it — repeatedly while you’re doing a crossword so that an old fool can pencil incorrect solutions into another crossword, reading out the clues of his own to you the while in tones of simple wonder?”)

But, with age, Amis seemed to derive less pleasure from what he loathed (and there was more of it), and alcohol eventually became an accelerant to the revulsion it was meant to ease. The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986 and is now being republished, with an introduction by John Banville, alongside Lucky Jim, is about men of what had become Amis’s age and condition: in their mid-to-late sixties, macerated by drink, physically decrepit, cheerless in marriage, and repulsed by the world around them. It is set in Wales — always the butt of jokes for English writers — and follows a few months in the lives of a group of friends and their wives at the point at which a married couple returns to their company after many years away. This is the tirelessly priapic Alun Weaver, who has made a celebrity’s career out of a proprietary following in the footsteps of a dead Welsh poet, and his wife, the beautiful Rhiannon. Their arrival has opened a portal to the past, for both have had affairs with some of these old friends (in her case) or their wives (in his).

That past is excavated, autopsied, and, unsatisfactorily revived, but first the havoc that age and a sedentary, bibulous existence have wrought in three of the main characters is described with a connoisseur’s relish. There is Malcolm, with monstrous tribulations at either end of his alimentary canal, his teeth a shambles and his other extremity recalcitrant; then there is Charlie, who has run to fat and is prey to crippling hangovers, which a gargantuan consumption of booze brings every morning; and, finally, Peter, set before us as Alun first sees him after many years: “someone who at first looked to Alun like an incredibly offensive but all too believable caricature of Peter Thomas aged about eighty-five and weighing half a ton. At a second glance he saw that it was Peter Thomas.” Much sport is made of these fellows and their wrecked and adipose persons, and also of their wives, chronic wine bibbers who remain props, though excellently constructed ones, throughout the novel.

The three friends, however, begin to emerge as true and unique characters. Each is bewildered, in his own way, as to how he has traveled from the missteps of youth through unmemorable years to this barren shore. The generally disruptive presence of Alun, a bounder of the first water, and of Rhiannon, rekindler of damped flames, jounces these men into life again. It may be a reduced, geriatric version, but it is life, no longer mere existence. The Old Devils is omega to Lucky Jim‘s alpha, and though still very funny, is in the end kindly, and really a far deeper novel.

Full, if superfluous, disclosure: I have written introductions to two NYRB classics editions: (Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse and my father J. F. Powers’s The Wheat that Springeth Green), decades after my first encounter with Lucky Jim.