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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Lucky Jim

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One of the great comic novels of the 20th century.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

One fun source of books for my staggering TBR pile is Workman Publishing’s “Page a Day Calendar for readers.  Every morning I am greeted with a novel, biography, history, or poetry for my reading pleasure.  I knew about Kingsley Amis through the Booker Prize, which he won in 1996.  Lucky Jim is considered by many critics to be his best comic novel.

According to the biography in my copy, Kingsley Amis was a novelist, poet, and critic widely regarded as one of the greatest satiric writers of the 20th century.  He was born in suburban South London.  He attended St. John’s College, Oxford on a scholarship where he began a lifelong friendship with poet Philip Larkin.  He served in the British Armey during World War II, and upon his “demobbing” – as the English put it – he finished his degree and joined the faculty of the University College of Swansea in Wales.  Lucky Jim, his first novel, was published in 1954.  He also taught for a year at Princeton University.  Amis published 24 novels, including his Booker Prize winner, The Old Devils.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990.  He died in 1995. 

Lucky Jim is the story of Jim Dixon, a beleaguered lecturer of Medieval History.  Hanging onto his perch at an unnamed provincial university and capturing the girl of his dreams are his principle occupations.  Despite the age of this novel, it struck me as remarkably timely even today.  I place it on a shelf with other of my favorites set in academia, such as Beet, The English Major, Stoner, and Straight Man.

A cautionary word, the British humor is typically dry and requires some close attention to get the jokes.  Here is a sample of Amis describing a hangover: “He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning.  The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again.  A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse.  His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as a mausoleum.  During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run, and then been expertly beaten up by secret police.  He felt bad” (60).

In an introduction by the critic and writer, Keith Gessen, Jim Dixon is modeled on Philip Larkin.  When Amis sent the manuscript to his friend for comment, Larkin responded that he ought to make Dixon more like Amis.  A funny exchange ensued with a catalogue of faces Amis could use. 

Amis gave up teaching, because it interfered with his writing.  Eventually, Amis surpassed his friend Larkin in notoriety, and the two drifted apart, despite a dedication to Larkin.  Kingsley Amis’ debut novel, Lucky Jim, is a hilarious romp through academia in the aftermath of World War II, and Amis deserves the acclaim he garnered.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!