She Should Have Given Him the Foreign Guinness

Posted by on October 17th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

A couple of weeks ago I posted about I Want It Now, a Kingsley Amis novel from the ’60s. Now I’ve read the novel, which I suppose makes a difference. Yes, it’s about trendy-media London, but it’s more about the very rich and how small minded they are and how they won’t pay for as much high-class food and drink as a guest really ought to have. Zachary Leader, in his Life of Kingsley Amis, reports that Amis was inspired to write the novel because, one day at lunch in a Montego Bay mansion, he wanted Foreign Guinness and was told by his ancient and strong-willed hostess that, no, he could only have Jamaican Red Stripe. As it turns out, the climax of Now comes when a very rich old lady is brought onto a TV talk show and is told by the other panelists how awful she is and how nobody likes her. Then she cuts up rough and has to be led off by the proper authorities (in this case studio security). Meanwhile, the book’s hero sits there hugging himself. My gosh. There’s something stunted about all this.

Leader says the book “severed relations” between Amis and his hostess, but only “temporarily.” So it must be true what they say about the man’s charm, but very little of that quality gets into Now. The big thing about the book, as an Amis narrator might say, is that it’s so bad. The jokes are thin, the writing is soggy, the plot is a pile of gimmes, the protagonist is one note (he’s a scheming TV host who pretends to liberal opinions), the girl ingenue is half a note, then none (she stops being such an affectless, addled bitch and becomes nothing). I Want It Now is readable in the sense that I read it, but remember that it’s short and the print was big and the book makes no demands on the brain. You don’t have to think, you just have to endure, to sit there and withstand the patter of pellet-like joke substitutes against your forehead.

In happier days. I’ll slip in this undersized snapshot of Amis doing one of his faces. It’s from when he was younger and less bleary than his Now period:

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Slipshod, corny. From Amis & Son, a career retrospective in which Neil Powell tut-tuts over Kingsley and Martin: “I Want It Now is the first of Kingsley’s own-name books to feel like the work of a professional hack rather than a vocational author.” I agree that “hack” is the word here. I Want It Now is lousy work. Here’s a sentence: “Before sitting down again she took his hand again.” Then there are the gags. You wouldn’t think Kingsley Amis could be corny, but check out the running joke about the TV-host hero and how random members of the public keep asking him about a rival TV host whom he hates. That’s not the most cunning insight into a man’s psyche or the doings of the showbiz world — one entertainer doesn’t like hearing about another — and so the joke isn’t much of a joke. But Amis puts it forward anyway, again and again, and the repetitions give him a huh-huh air, the air of someone made a little dimwitted by his eagerness to be entertaining. Which is a comedown when you think of how much of the appeal of his and his son’s writing is its arrogance, the sense it projects that the people writing are better than the people reading, better because the writers have superior taste and greater verbal command. Then you see Kingsley in a pair of Bermuda shorts and wagging his hands in the air.

And yet … there are bits of good stuff. Given all the descriptions of affected behavior, some are precise and therefore funny. For example, the arm gestures used by the hero’s smarmy producer: post-show, he approaches the hero “with his wrists crossed in front of his chest, palms outward. This showed a high degree of approval, well above the vampiric arm-raising and second only to the clenched fists held close to the shoulders.” Or the hero’s smarmy answers about his rival, at least the early ones (pretty soon the focus is just that he keeps getting asked).

Girl with freckles, revisited. Then there’s a nice bit of prose, the moment when the hero gets a dizzy glimpse of the odd, short-circuited girl who will be his heroine. Something I didn’t note about the passage: the way it swings the reader’s brain behind them by saying, not that the girl’s eyes are a particular shade of brown, or even that the eyes are the same color as her freckles, but instead that seeing the girl forces the hero to realize that “moles and freckles can be the same color as someone’s eyes.” Three key pieces of information — eye color, ownership of eye color, and match-up of eye color with freckles — are folded away, hocus-pocused into implication instead of statement. Yet the meaning comes thru loud and clear. It walks up behind you and taps your shoulder, and as you swing around you experience a demi-moment of the same giddiness experienced by the hero.

Here he is again. His Wikipedia shot, taken closer to Now. I think he’s enjoying himself:

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Daily proverb. There’s nothing wrong with growing up a little.

Stan says. “The Sword and the Scorpion!” Perhaps the greatest issue yet of Kull the Conqueror!

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One Response to “She Should Have Given Him the Foreign Guinness”

  1. vollsticks says:

    That Guinness Foreign Extra is strong stuff.