Lucky Jim marks my first entry into the world of Kingsley Amis, courtesy of that TIME list of the All-TIME 100 Novels, and I’m hooked. Lucky Jim falls somewhere short of Waugh and Wodehouse on the humor continuum – Amis even includes a direct hat-tip to Waugh late in the book – but sits as a much more realistic novel than the best comic works of his English contemporaries.
The Jim of the book’s title is Jim Dixon, a sort of accidental lecturer at a minor “red brick” university in England, and he is the classic normal guy surrounded by wackos. His boss, Professor Welch, can’t remember Dixon’s name (calling him Faulkner, the name of his predecessor), can’t finish a thought, and can’t drive to save his own life. His sort-of girlfriend, Margaret, recently tried to kill herself and is engaged in a bizarre cling-and-push dynamic with Jim. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) One colleague, known just as Johns, lives in the same apartment building as Jim and seems to exist solely to report Jim’s foibles to Welch. And about a half-dozen other nuts populate Jim’s life, while Jim himself tends to exacerbate the situation by running to drink when the going gets tough and by coming up with some harebrained schemes to try to torment Johns and Bertrand, Professor Welch’s son and the boyfriend of Christine, with whom Dixon finds himself inadvertently falling in love.
Amis derives comedy both from the setup and from the action, a rare skill and one that separates funny writers from genuine comic novelists. Lucky Jim‘s story revolves around Dixon’s desperate attempt to keep his job by agreeing to come to a small arts festival at Professor Welch’s house and give a speech on Merrie England. Every time Dixon goes to the house, however, he ends up in trouble, usually of his own making, from falling asleep with a lit cigarette to the creation of the love triangle – rather, love pentagon involving himself, Bertrand, Christine, Margaret, and a married woman Bertrand may or may not be shagging on the side. It is occasionally riotous, always smirk-inducing, and surprisingly realistic, especially the dialogue between Jim and Christine, which borders on the mundane but imbues the book with a grounded feeling that, as much as I love the man’s works, Wodehouse books and stories don’t have.
While at Harvard, my favorite class was “Comedy and the Novel,” taught by Professor Donald Fanger (now retired); among the eight books was The Master and Margarita , still the best novel I’ve ever read, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller , an experimental novel by Calvino that’s among the funniest I’ve ever read. Lucky Jim would have fit into the syllabus without any shoehorning at all.