Walter Allen, one of the best critics in England, announced in a book review that "A new hero has risen among us." He had noticed something important. A fresh male character, with a particular set of attitudes, was about to conquer British culture.
This new creature, soon to be labelled the Angry Young Man, was an unlikely hero -- discontented, intentionally graceless, exasperated, impatient, above all suspicious of anything that seemed phony. The novels and plays depicting him caught something in the air, a change in the tone of life that needed expression. They anticipated the dominant themes of 1960s and 1970s Britain, the blithely insolent Beatles and the anarchic Monty Python.
Allen was reviewing Kingsley Amis's first book, Lucky Jim, whose admirers are celebrating its 50th birthday. The hero of that comic novel, Jim Dixon, not only showed no mercy toward anything bogus but exhibited an unashamed philistinism. When he overhears someone singing he identifies the tune as "some skein of untiring facetiousness by filthy Mozart." At the time, that was truly shocking, and attracted horrified comment.
Neither Amis nor the other angries were any more wrathful than ordinarily ambitious young writers. They acquired their name from John Osborne's 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, but even Osborne couldn't explain what he was so mad about, aside from the irritations writers had been depicting for generations. (Only in his memoirs, much later, did he reveal the main object of his rage: his despicable mom.)
Amis's Jim, having served in the Royal Air Force, emerges into the dreariness of post-war Britain, when austerity has become long-term government policy and life feels as bleak as a Labour Party budget. He's stumbled unwarily into a suburb of scholarship, as an assistant lecturer in medieval history (about which he cares nothing) at a provincial university. He and the other young teachers, living in boarding houses, are paid so little they can rarely afford to get drunk. Jim counts his cigarettes with care, for reasons of cost, not health. For Amis, this grim existence becomes the subject of irresistible comedy.
Lucky Jim was so obviously a young man's book, no one guessed it would stay in print until the following century and be counted a classic. What matters to a reader in 2004 is not the accurate picture of the early '50s but the comic art Amis deploys, the best of it on the level of Wodehouse and Waugh. At times, Jim comes across as a Buster Keaton character who has wandered into an Ealing comedy.
Staying at the home of his department head, whom he needs desperately to impress, he gets drunk and sets his bed on fire. In the morning he cuts away the burnt sections of his bedclothes in an attempt to cover his crime. The thought processes behind this strategy owe much to one of literature's great hangovers, during which Jim decides it's best not to move his eyeballs and that "His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum."
He directs his disdain at everything in sight, including his own scholarship, with "its niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems." He's written a paper, The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485, that he hopes will help him get a job. It's so bad that another scholar plagiarizes it.
Jim's ghastly department head, Professor Neddy Welch ("no other professor in Great Britain set such store by being called Professor"), slowly and relentlessly develops into an unforgettably odious character, all the more effective for the fact that he does nothing evil except make life unbearable for everyone within range of his voice. I can't think of another novel that so enjoyably describes the soul-killing tedium produced by a braying, highly skilled and uninterruptible bore. The human source of this masterpiece was Amis's father-in-law of the time, who, like Neddy, discoursed interminably on madrigal singing, recorder playing, Morris dancing and English "folk culture." Amis hated being around him, considered him an obnoxious pseud, and translated this hatred into high comedy.
Amis and his close friend Philip Larkin (who was the editor and almost a collaborator on Lucky Jim) regarded boredom as a form of malicious aggression when imposed by someone with power -- an attitude that recalls Saul Bellow's remark (inspired by a book about Hitler's conversation) that people become dictators so that others will have to endure their tedious conversation.
Someone else makes Jim's life hell, a neurotic would-be girlfriend and fellow lecturer, Margaret. He sees her as a friend but she has more romantic ideas, and a talent for manipulation. His polite and innocent concern (she's recently attempted suicide after abandonment by another chap) leaves him vulnerable to intimidating conversation, typified by "Do you think we get on well together?" and "How close we seem to be tonight, James" and "All the barriers are down at last aren't they?" Letters and memoirs have made it plain that she was based, with appalling precision, on one of Larkin's girlfriends, about whom Larkin's feelings were ambivalent at best.
In the 1990s, an elderly American critic remarked that Lucky Jim affected people so powerfully that "you remember when you read it, like Pearl Harbor and the death of FDR." Certain novels are like that: They make such an impression that they somehow incorporate a reader's surroundings alongside memories of the book. I remember at most a couple of dozen books like that, Lucky Jim among them.
It was a November afternoon in cold, rain-soaked London in the mid-1950s. Not only had the British Museum lost its charm, I had acquired the flu and felt profoundly sorry for myself. But, lucky me, I had acquired Amis's already famous novel a few days earlier. After I read 20 pages the rain and cold and flu ceased to matter, pushed from consciousness by this amazing comedy. Lying in bed, I laughed aloud, again and again. Last weekend, reading Lucky Jim for the third time, I found myself laughing once more. There are those who call Lucky Jim the funniest book of the last 50 or 60 years, and they'll get no argument from me.