With a Little Luck

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis

My son, the budding 8-year old literary critic, has built his evaluative armory on a strong foundation: cover illustrations. He subjects these packaging exercises to analysis–cursory or detailed depending on his mood–and generates more questions about the content than Leslie Fiedler could.

He had a lot of questions about the present volume.

At this point, so do I.

Kingsley Amis, who is entitled to an honorific that I will, in deference to my republican roots, forego, was a 20th century English writer. In America we like specializing. So while there’s always some blurring of the lines , we tend to have novelists and journalists and poets and dramatists and TV writers. By comparison, Amis seems to have worked in most of those genres.  Lucky Jim is the novel that established his reputation as a comic novelist.

In a lot of ways I think that  could be the worst reputation a writer might garner.

KIngsley Amis

Laugh out loud writing, I think, is a hard thing to pull off. A quip here or there seems easier to manage than extended joke-telling. What works in a movie, or even a stand-up routine, can often lie there, inert on the page. Plus, someone–an editor, or, worse, critic–has labelled the work comic. It sort of puts the burden of comedy on the humour of strangers if you think about it. And I’m not sure that always delivers a laugh.

Jim is Jim Dixon, a very junior faculty member at an unnamed college located nowhere near London.  Except for critical eye-rolling, I pay the British class system and aristocracy little heed and so I miss nuances that a native would grasp instantly. I gather that the facts set out at the start of this paragraph, taken together, paint a picture of middlingness designed to establish distance from the precincts of Oxbridge.  (Amis, himself, is an Oxford graduate.)

I suppose that’s part of the joke. Dixon is a lecturer in Medieval History, a specialty that even in a land with thousands of years of history seems esoteric–especially if esoteric is meant to convey irrelevance. This could be a matter of cultural nuance. For all I know, medieval history tweaks the pretensions of higher education in England the way underwater basket weaving does here at home.

Jim is a bit of a nervous sort, lazy and uncertain if he’ll be asked back to teach another term. He is a classic academic. Verging on penury, not materially driven and not possessing much that is material, fond of cigarettes and alcohol, maybe looking for love but clumsy socially and especially around women. He takes a room in a boarding house with other young men on the faculty beginning their working lives.

I picture Dixon teaching at a school much like this one. (U. of Birmingham)

He’s also young. I say that as someone possessed since childhood of an old, heavy soul. Dixon indulges himself in a juvenile feud with a fellow lodger that propels the plot and causes more trouble than any satisfaction it could ever deliver. It’s also, as the game theorists and economists say, asymmetric. Dixon scratches a beard and moustache onto a magazine cover, Johns–the aggrieved– rats Dixon out to his supervisor.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Jim and a girl. Two girls, really. The first is Margaret Peel, also junior faculty and recovering from a suicide attempt that, had he heeded an invitation, Jim might have prevented. The other is Christine Callaghan, a young woman who enters the picture on the arm of Bertrand Welch, the aspiring artist son of Dixon’s supervisor.

Professor Welch is the classic mumbling, distracted intellectual whose idea of a grand entertainment is a stimulating intellectual weekend of recorder concertos and choral singing. It is to such a gathering at his home that Jim is invited, a good sign, he thinks, that he is being seriously considered for a second term. It’s at this weekend that Jim meets Christine.

There is a movie, of course, there’s always a movie. MAybe that explains the novel’s reputation. Great cast, btw.

But, of course, the thing is dreadful. How could it not be? Dixon is well aware of this possibility and makes plans to be called away early, but he can’t abide the jocularity and so leaves the premises and repairs to a nearby pub.

The aftermath of one too many requires faster thinking than our hungover hero can muster but Christine lends a hand. Jim is smitten with Christine, attracted to her both physically and because she is not an academic. At least that’s what I think. Margaret hardly makes the case for female faculty, being a bit of a frump and maybe a bit of a nutter. There seems to be some reciprocity.

The only problem is Bertrand. And that his father is Dixon’s boss. Bertrand is a bullying, callow fool, displaying little talent for anything much more than self-promotion which requires more than a soupçon of self-regard. He blusters. He threatens. He starts a fist fight. A delight is our Bertrand. Need I note his hold on the girl is tenuous?

The tale reaches its climax in a lecture Welch asks Dixon to deliver on Merrie England. This is another culturally specific in-joke, meant not only to disparage an idea but those who would think that such an idea is worthy of scholarly pursuit. It all goes horribly wrong.

Is this the merrie England Dixon lectures about?

And yet it doesn’t. Because it all works out. The love triangle. The unspoken but expected responsibility for Margaret. Employment. It’s a bit too neat, almost a movie ending which is probably why a film was made almost instantly. And now that I’ve had to actually think about it I suppose all these things are being sent up. I grew up a Yank on Monty Python, though, and require a little more idiocy to really get the joke.

I strive to be fair so allow me to do so as I end.  I think of Amis as a nasty man with a drinking problem. Don’t ask me why I think that; I’ve no idea. And I know he has this comic reputation. For most of the book I didn’t see the humour. And then Jim rode the bus to catch Christine before she boarded a train.

That bus encountered every pitfall known to  slow down modern transport. The thoughts that run through Jim’s head during this trip as his deadline is increasingly imperiled make for one of the funniest, if nastiest, bits I’ve ever read.





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