In late 2011 I decided to comb through the unread sections of my library in alphabetical order. It was a silly, semi-self-destructive idea, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.
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KINGSLEY AMIS, LUCKY JIM (1954)
THOUGHTS: Look at me, starting off the year with a re-read. I never do that. Lucky Jim was my first campus novel, and I was curious to see how it held up now that I know the field a little better. It’s actually a strange little book, with long, vivid, character-propelled scenes making up the bulk of it. Gags are sparser than you might think. The funny parts—Jim’s hangover, Welch’s fishing hat, the climactic lecture on “Merrie England”—do hold up, but it’s the quieter bits that resonated harder for me this time. There’s one moment where Jim, en route to see the younger woman he’s courting, looks out the car window and sees (a) a lecherous shopkeeper ogling some high school girls and (b) a cricket player getting whomped in the stomach with a stray ball. So great. I didn’t retain that scene on my first time through, but now I won’t be forgetting it any time soon.
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KINGSLEY AMIS, RUSSIAN HIDE-AND-SEEK (1980)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I liked Lucky Jim so much? No idea.
THOUGHTS: Right on time—the other shoe drops. The opening scene here is absolutely ripe with awful, obvious writing. “You don’t imagine your father would try to compel you?” asks the sheep-scaring hero’s mother, in that way that nobody ever does. “You know that’s not his style.” And now so do we! Convenience! The elder Amis wrote novels at a furious pace and woof, does it show. I made it about eight pages into this one—which I assume is now out of print—before channelling my inner Bartleby. I would prefer not to.
KEEP OR SELL: Sell.