The Tippling Point

A 1960s edition of Amis’s 1954 novel, cover by Nicolas Bentley.
A 1960s edition of Amis’s 1954 novel, cover by Nicolas Bentley.

What’s the proper solution to the following problem? You wake one morning in a bed not your own to find that ash from a carelessly enjoyed cigarette at the end of the night—one that you don’t exactly remember smoking—has burned through two bedsheets and a blanket. Additional brown marks and grooves indicate damage to the bedside rug and table. Now keep in mind the following conditions: (1) The burns were not caused by an intruder but certainly by you; (2) you smoked the cigarettes after sneaking out of the house to a pub and consuming eight pints of beer; (3) you returned to make out with Margaret, a woman sleeping across the hall, for whom you have at best ambivalent feelings and who has been recently suicidal and is too prim to be counted on as an accomplice; (4) after she sent you away, you also had a nightcap of half a bottle of sherry from your host’s liquor cabinet; (5) your host and the owner of the house, whose idea of a party involves choral singing (at which you are incompetent), is your boss; (6) you don’t enjoy much job security at the moment; (7) you are suffering from a hangover that leaves you feeling as if you’ve been worked over by the KGB.

Readers of Kingsley Amis’s newly reissued Lucky Jim (New York Review Books, $15)—will already know the solution: (1) Cut the burned edges from around the holes in the sheets and stuff the scraps in your pockets; (2) make the bed, burying the holes near the foot of the bed so that they may be “reasonably” ascribed to nightmare-induced kicking, or to hungry moths; (3) eat a fried egg and a piece of bacon; (4) enlist the aid of your host’s son’s girlfriend to hide the cigarette-scarred table in the junk room down the hall; (5) arrange to be called away from the weekend soiree by your roommate, who phones to say that your parents have unexpectedly arrived for a visit; (6) get scolded by your jealous erstwhile kissing partner for all your bad behavior; (7) fall in love instead with the host’s son’s girlfriend. (The solution seems to me to neglect the problem of the scarred rug, but that’s a question best left to scholars.)

The crudest type of luck in Amis’s first novel—published in 1954, when he was thirty-two years old, the author of three volumes of poetry, a father of three, and a lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Swansea—is brought about by ironically beneficial binge drinking. The bender that results in the burned sheets sets the plot in motion by allowing James Dixon (who, like Amis and his friend Philip Larkin, is the holder of a comfortable but lousy job at a provincial university, which beats being a schoolteacher or an office drone) to enlist Christine Callaghan in a conspiracy to conceal the night’s damage. Dixon keeps the mischief going, helping Christine by calling her painter boyfriend Bertrand Welch—a cad who’s hard to track down—and posing as a newspaper reporter who wants to write an item about Welch’s art. Dixon then makes off with Christine in secret from a dance when Bertrand’s affections are directed elsewhere (he’s sleeping with a married woman). Dixon later meets Christine for a secret tea date (oh, naughty England).

It’s enough to put the fight in Bertrand, and by the time Dixon takes the stage to deliver his climactic lecture on “Merrie England” (he specializes in medieval history), it’s with a black eye suffered for the sin of that clandestine tea. After the tussle, whiskey is the anesthetic at hand. Behind the lectern, Dixon’s once again very, very drunk, and finds himself parodying the speaking style of his boss, Professor Welch, launching into a polemic against the man before finally passing out. That’s it for Dixon the lecturer. But the next day, one of the bearers of the undoing flasks offers him a job that will place him in London as a sort of literary operative, a chance he couldn’t have imagined, not to mention a perch far away from the hysterical (a term still employed with a whiff of diagnosis in 1954) Margaret and within wooing distance of his beloved and recently liberated Christine. Sometimes getting sacked is a good thing.

It’s hard to believe now, when a new campus novel seems to drop every week, but Lucky Jim was one of the first, out the same year as Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution. The 1950s were the dawn of what we now call the meritocracy, and Lucky Jim is imbued with skepticism about what sort of people the system rewards (“shits” or “craps,” Amis would have called them) and whether the rewards were worth anything. Amis’s fear at the time was that he’d be stuck as an obscure lecturer forever. As he wrote to Larkin from Swansea after turning thirty:

What am I doing here? Or anywhere, for that matter. If only someone would take me up, or even show a bit of interest. If only someone would publish some books of mine, I could write some. . . . You know the sort of thing that’s going to happen to me? With my teeth even worse than they are (I have had gingivitis for some time) dressing in camel-hair waistcoat and bow-ties, I shall be laughing and talking loudly in the pubs at lunch-time . . . passing myself off as a grand chap, referring to my successful friends. . . . All this of course will be taking place in one of the smaller and poorer provincial cities.

Dixon’s escape to London was a sort of wish fulfillment Amis couldn’t manage for himself at this point in his own life. He had to content himself with throwing cocktail parties (“The house keeps filling with self-invited craps”) and writing. “Make myself laugh a bit more often than formerly,” he wrote to Larkin when he had ninety-four pages of the first draft of Lucky Jim.

We still read it for the humor, the biting dialogue, the bitter lines. Dixon, escaping his weekend at the Welches’: “Apart from making him feel he might die or go mad at any moment, his hangover had vanished.” The name-calling in Dixon and Bertrand’s fistfight: “you Byronic tail-chaser” (Dixon to Bertrand); “you dirty little bar-fly, you nasty little jumped-up turd” (Bertrand to Dixon); “you bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation” (Dixon to Bertrand). Jim, victoriously taking Christine to lunch by the train station: “‘Right, well we’ll give the bloody old fool [Bertrand] time to get clear, and then we’ll go have a drink.’ He would begin with an octuple whisky.” (It’s impossible to make such an order in England; I’ve tried.)

“Do I look like I can afford spirits?” Jim asks Christine on the morning of the bedsheets incident, explaining that his hangover is from beer. “I’m not so keen on beer as he is,” Amis told the BBC, about the difference between himself and his character. In one key respect, though, Amis did eventually follow in Dixon’s career path, persuading some London publishers to continue releasing his work after the success of Lucky Jim. And once he arrived at the center of literary England, he could afford spirits, although his acerbic worldview remained unsweetened.

I live as a lodger now in London by Primrose Hill, and the pub on my corner, the Queen’s, was Amis’s local in his final years. I tend to avoid it because the television screens overwhelm you, and I’m not a fan of soccer. Amis moved to the neighborhood from Kentish Town in 1984. He wrote to Larkin: “It’s v. near . . . where I used to give it to ole-Janey girl in the long-ago.” “Ole-Janey girl” was Amis’s second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had recently left him. After their divorce, he moved back in with his first wife, Hilary Bardwell, and her third husband, Alastair Boyd, seventh Baron Kilmarnock. The arrangement apparently worked. In a typical month during this phase, according to his biographer Zachary Leader, Amis spent about £1,000 on drinking. “Here we are then,” he wrote to Robert Conquest, “in just a week, study, drinks-cupboard, and telly (one on every floor) in operation, which is all that matters really.”

At the time of the move, Amis was writing The Old Devils (New York Review Books, $15), which would be published in 1986 and would win him the Booker Prize. In that book, a set of sexagenarian retirees in Wales are disrupted by the return of Alun and Rhiannon Weaver. Alun is a sort of professional Welshman, stunted as a writer but a minor celebrity as the editor of the selected poems of Brydan, a late, great stand-in for Dylan Thomas. He’s also priapic. With the excuse of scouting locations for a television documentary called In Search of Wales, he tours the beds of the region’s aging beauties, including those of a couple of his friends’ wives. (What sex transpires mostly does so offstage, or in one case by means of an ellipsis.) Rhiannon, meanwhile, is the object of two local men’s nostalgic fondness. Alun could be a version of James Dixon if he’d matured into a schemer and a lothario. Malcolm, a retired professor and one of the men in love with Rhiannon, could be a Dixon who stayed stuck in the provinces and grew more innocent with time.

Three decades on, Amis was defter at shifting points of view, even relaxing his trademark chauvinism long enough to manage to look at things from the women’s perspectives. And he knew about the ravages of time. In The Old Devils, there’s no system oppressing the characters, only time itself. Time wrecks your teeth. Time makes you fat. Time turns sleeping and waking into tortures. Time rots out Wales till there’s little left among the greenery but derelict ports, churches without congregations, and pubs that have turned into tourist traps. Time can make you drop dead just when you’ve just poured a new drink. That’s what happens to Alun, and it serves him right: He spent too much time getting lucky.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.