I don’t know that much about Kingsley Amis, other than what was in a 2007 article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB Volume 54, Number 9 · May 31, 2007), most of which I have forgotten. But I own an old, battered copy of Lucky Jim which I apparently paid 90 cents for and never read. The cover states: “No one has been so funny in this vein since Evelyn Waugh was at his best.” – Arthur Mizener. Since I’ve never read Waugh, or heard of Mizener, it’s probably safe to assume that I picked it up because the cover was drawn by Edward Gorey.
Lucky Jim, lucky for me, turned out to be an enjoyable little book. Jim, or Dixon as he’s called through the majority of the novel, is an underling in the medieval history department of a British University. He has no illusions why he is there. “He’d come up to college he realized, nothing very clear in mind, chiefly out of a reluctance to leave Beesley’s (his friend from the RAF) company.” When asked by the same Beesley as to why he went into medieval studies, he admits, “…that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. It’s why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation…” His motivating interests in the novel, the two that really propel the plot, are whether or not he’ll be fired and the fact that he’s fallen in love with his professor’s son’s girl. Alcohol and smoking also rank high.
That’s the basic story: Dixon maneuvering his way through the obstacle course of his antagonists, like the silver ball in a pinball machine, until he reaches his happy ending. And just like on a pinball machine it’s the obstacles and not the silver ball that give the book all its color. Each fits into their own stereotypical niche. The boorish, long-winded professor who is completely out of touch with the reality of everyday people and whose only interest in the world around him is in how it directly effects him. His son, Bertrand, is a pompous, self-aggrandizing faux “starving” artist – sure of his own greatness and more than happy to explain it to anyone who will listen. Dixon’s current romantic interest at the opening of the book is an unattractive, suicidal, blue stocking with a multitude of affectations and a penchant for creating dramas where she plays the starring role. They are all caricatures. Not because they don’t exist as people, but because Amis has trimmed all the excess humanity from them. We are left nothing with which to empathize.
Despite that, or maybe because of it, the book can be a lot of fun. There is a certain pleasure to be taken in moral absolutes – where our choices are obvious and the outcome assured. And the author has a way with banter, making it witty and quick, like a black & white Pre-Code Hollywood film. This is found not just in the way the characters talk to each other, but in the way Amis talks to his readers. Parenthesis mine.
“… The bathroom was evidently occupied; perhaps Johns had decided to blockade the bedroom belonging to the defacer of his periodical (that would be Dixon). Dixon stood well back, straddling, and raised his hands like a conductor on the brink of some thunderous overture or tone program; then, half conductor, half boxer, went into a brief manic flurry of obscene gestures…”
‘Over the whiskey bottle an hour and a half earlier Atkinson had insisted, not only on coming to the lecture, but on announcing his intention of pretending to faint should Dixon, finding things getting out of hand in any way, scratch both his ears simultaneously. “It’ll be a good faint,” Atkinson has said in his arrogant voice. “It’ll create a diversion all right. Don’t you worry.”’
“Christine began laughing noisily and blushing at the same time. Dixon laughed too. He thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing. Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he’d none to celebrate with. As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face…”
There is a pleasure to be found in a well written book, with dry humor, that you can relate to. Kingsley Amis accomplishes this in Lucky Jim.
I’ve been toying with reading something by Kingsley’s son, Martin, who I’ve heard is much darker than his father. But as far as a summer read, a book to bring to the beach or read on the train, you can’t go wrong with this book. It reads well. It’s surprisingly not dated. You should be able to get it fairly easily at the library or at the used bookstore – though it seems as if it’s still in print if you want to buy new. If you’re really lucky, you might find a copy with the cover art drawn by Edward Gorey.
Venue: This is strictly for entertainment, though its old enough to qualify as vintage. If you get a good, beat up paperback copy, stick it in your back pocket and read it anywhere. It might look interesting enough to get someone walking by to start a conversation. If not, download it to your iphone or Sony reader* – nobody needs to know.
* not available on the Kindle