Which is a real shame: The elder Amis' novels are hilariously quotable, compulsively readable, and never dull. They are all admirably svelte, an underappreciated quality in the era of the mammoth best seller. (Ahem, Jonathan Franzen.) Thankfully, the New York Review of Books Classics has just republished (on Oct. 2) two of Amis' best novels, Lucky Jim, his first, and The Old Devils, one of his last and winner of the Man Booker Prize.
Both are well worth reading, although Lucky Jim (his most famous work) is the place to begin. It is the story of Jim Dixon, a put-upon professor, on a two-year contract, at a provisional university in postwar Britain. He is faced with pompous and dull superiors, entitled trust fund artists, and remorseless competitors jockeying for his job.
The setting is 1940s (or early '50s) austerity Britain, where rationing is still in effect and pocket money is scarce. Dixon lives in a group house, does not drive, owns only three pairs of pants, and strictly rations his cigarette intake for the health of his wallet, not his lungs. The experience of professional penury was familiar to Amis, himself an ill-paid lecturer at a provincial university. When he started writing Lucky Jim, baby Martin slept in a drawer.
Dixon's forcibly thrifty lifestyle will probably be distressingly familiar to many of his contemporary counterparts in the creative professions - academia, law, publishing, or, say, journalism - who graduated into the worst recession since the 1930s. There are many adjunct professors and grad students today who can relate to this dreary task: "Before [working on a lecture] he must review his financial position, see if he could somehow restore it from complete impossibility to its usual level of merely imminent disaster."
Lucky Jim is a hugely enjoyable novel of life's beginnings: Finding love, work, and enough to drink. Perhaps its most notorious passage is one describing Dixon's state after a night of excessive revelry. ("His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.") It is, without a doubt, the funniest description of a hangover in English literature.
The Old Devils, a novel about life's end, is just as excellent, and technically stronger. Although set in the economically depressed Wales of the 1980s (the region was basically the British equivalent of the rust belt), the characters in The Old Devils are insulated from all that. They've made it financially, like Amis himself when he wrote the book.
While poor Dixon's drink choices are limited - "Come on, Jim: beer or beer?" - the old devils drink in a bar "which thoughtfully offered seventeen different kinds of Scotch whisky." (Drinking is a perennial theme of Amis' work: It was not for nothing that Martin referred to his father as "the laureate of the hangover.")
The old devils are about my parents' age, although they, and Amis himself, are really of my grandparent's generation. One of the novel's great themes is the relations between married couples of that era and the stultifying norms that have sapped many of their companionships of any warmth they once had. The female characters in Lucky Jim are often undeveloped, and there is plenty of casual pre-second wave feminism sexism to be found, but, in The Old Devils, the women are fully fleshed out human beings. (Although their menfolk are fun and interesting, too, and just as given to rote sexism as, well, many men of their generation, including Amis himself.) But the women are given an equal, and better articulated say.
Amis shows Rhiannon, the main female character, dealing with every kind of exasperating and offensive male behavior, from starry-eyed idealization (which ignores who she actually is) to habitual infidelity. She is one of the more interesting characters in all of Amis' work, and much better emotionally realized than any of the characters in, say, Lucky Jim.
NYRB Classics will be republishing six more of Amis' novels, and collections of poems and short stories, in the coming years. All of them will be worth reading, but these two are the best and an excellent way to get introduced to the elder half of the Amis dynasty.
E-mail Jake Blumgart at firstname.lastname@example.org.