Sunday 5 January 2014

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I've always regarded Kingsley Amis's masterpiece as being his brilliant ghost story The Green Man, so I've tended to ignore his much more famous first novel Lucky Jim. But Lucky Jim has been loved and admired by generations of readers and I recently re-read it myself, in the edition illustrated (right) with a very useful introduction by David Lodge.

I have always vividly remembered at least one inspired comic scene from the time I first read Lucky Jim, decades ago. It is the magnificent set piece where our hero Jim Dixon is desperately racing to try and get to the girl he loves before she leaves, and he's on a bus and it seems to be travelling in slow motion. 

Sitting on the top deck of the double decker, Jim is being driven into a frenzied rage by the bus's leisurely progress:"the driver added to his hypertrophied caution an almost psychopathic devotion to the interests of other road-users." 

Every possibly delay ensues in an almost animated-cartoon style. And Jim begins to fantasise feverishly about more of the same, encouraged by the bus driver's utter lack of urgency: "gossipping knots of loungers parted leisuredly at the touch of his reluctant bonnet; toddlers reeled to retrieve toys from under his just-revolving wheels."
When the bus stops to allow a farm tractor onto the road in front of it, "Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of both vehicles."

Published 60 years ago, Lucky Jim stands up amazingly well. It's hilarious, brilliantly written and beautifully observed. The best drawn characters include Professor Welch (Jim's boss at the university where he has begun to teach, who holds Jim's fate in his hands). 

A master of evasion, Welch can never finish a sentence. Then there's Welch's son Bertrand, the loathsomely pretentious bearded, beret-wearing painter who has the girl Jim wants. And Margaret, Jim's sort-of girlfriend, a manipulative and emotionally blackmailing bundle of neuroses whom Jim can't quite get free of.

Unusually in Amis's canon, the book ends very happily and makes for an entirely satisfying read (though I kept tut-tutting about how many cigarettes everyone smoked).  Highly recommended.

Recent Penguin editions also include David Lodge's insightful and informative introduction which makes the interesting point that Lucky Jim was a sort of reversal of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Greene's book was dark and tragic, Amis's light and comic. And while The Heart of the Matter leads to a genuine suicide through the hero's inability to free himself from morbid pity, Lucky Jim features a fake suicide which allows its hero to shake off just such pity, and escape happily to London with the girl he fancies.

(All the images were taken from Good Reads including the Penguin of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter with the excellent Paul Hogarth cover illustration. The copy of Lucky Jim I just read had Jonny Hannah cover art, seen at the top of this post. Note the little vignettes surrounding Jim. For instance, you can see Bertrand with his beard and beret above Jim, and Professor Welch in his ridiculous fishing hat below him. I also discovered that the US first edition hardback had cover art by Edward Gorey, recently reprinted in both American and British paperbacks. Now I lust after a copy.)


  1. Happy New Year Andrew! I hope that you had a good
    Thanks to you this book has now gone to the top of
    my list of ' Books I Must Read'. I had heard good reports
    of the book some years ago, and you have now made
    me determined to obtain a copy soon.
    Best regards.

  2. Happy New Year to you, too! Had a great Christmas, thanks. I hope you enjoy Lucky Jim. Let me know what you think. (Once you've read it, try The Green Man. If you like ghost stories, it's a cracker.)