Continuing my pleasurable project of reading all of Kingsley Amis's fiction, in more or less chronological order, we now arrive at his fifth novel One Fat Englishman (1963). Amis's development as a writer is really quite impressive. The book is stylistically strikingly different from its predecessors, as if Amis was constantly experimenting with technique and setting challenges for himself. It's also very well crafted and confidently written.
It begins with nearly two solid pages of dialogue, with no exposition or scene setting. This reads almost like the work of George V. Higgins or Elmore Leonard (two American crime novelists who wouldn't be writing like this for another decade). So we are plunged straight into the world of Roger Micheldene, the eponymous obese Brit, an obnoxious publishing executive visiting America — the book draws heavily on Amis's experience of teaching in Princeton a year or two earlier.
And obnoxious is the word. Roger is a drunk and a rage-addict. He is a snob and a connoisseur of snuff and cigars. Although he is in America (a country he hates) on business, his primary objective is pursuing another man's wife, with whom he is deeply infatuated. Oddly, Roger is religious, saying
his prayers at night, a first for an Amis hero. Perhaps this is a nod to
Graham Greene (or 'Grim Grin' as Amis called him).
Roger is also unusual in the Amis canon in that he is utterly upper class — such types are often beautifully evoked in Amis, but up to now have always been at the periphery of the novels, never the central figure. Similarly, never before has such an entirely negative and offensive person occupied centre stage. In Take a Girl Like You, Jenny stops Patrick from throwing gravel at some chickens. In One Fat Englishman nobody stops Roger from taking a child's toy robot and throwing it away, deep into the woods. And in Take a Girl Like You Patrick wasn't always like that, nor was he the only character the novel focused on. But Roger is always like that, and he is always the character we're stuck with here.
Indeed, Roger is such a rebarbative and repellent figure that the book is virtually dead in the water from the word go. We are effectively stuck inside Roger's head, and in his world view, and since he is so thoroughly unsympathetic — and moving through a realm of characters who are equally unappealing — the novel isn't exactly a cheerful experience.
But, as you'd expect in Amis, there are moments of brilliant observation and comedy. A shirt is described as having "a pattern reminiscent of cushion-covers in typists' flats." (I suppose the day isn't too distant when no one will no what the hell a typist was.) When the girl he lusts after dons a bikini and goes swimming, "Roger sat watching like a sniper waiting for a clear shot at a general." And Roger's opinion of satire is compared to his feelings about "mentholated snuff or an African politician."
There are also a lot of moments which present a very dark view of humanity. After describing a hideously bratty child, Roger ruminates "It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children".
Amis generally writes his American dialogue very well, but occasionally comes a cropper. I doubt if any American when telling time says "a quarter of" the hour (as opposed to "a quarter to") or used the word "shan't", or uttered the phrase "I should say not," in 1963 or any other year.
One Fat Englishman calls to mind another portrait of America by a foreign writer who was a novelist of genius — Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It is reminiscent of Lolita in the darkly comic, acid outsider's perspective it has on the Cold War USA and its ways. And also, quite strongly, in the scene where the hero's beloved runs off with the villain of the novel. Amis would not have appreciated this comparison. He detested Nabokov in general and Lolita in particular. His son, Martin, on the other hand loves Nabokov. So perhaps it's no surprise that of all his father's novels, this is the one which seems to have had the most emphatic influence on Martin. Indeed, perhaps to the extent that he's never got over it.
One Fat Englishman is written in an unusual and striking style: sharp edged, angular, cartoonish, with a heightened sense of reality (or unreality). It would provoke a furious and venomous outburst from Roger to say this, but it is very American, resembling the work of, say, Terry Southern or John Barth from the same period. Come to think of it, it's also a work of satire.
Pass the mentholated snuff.
(Image credits: The Penguin first edition with the great hairy-belly and Union Jack snuff box cover — design by Freire Wright, photography by Karl Ferris — later a great psychedelic photographer of rock stars) is actually the copy I read, bought from eBay. The rest are from Good Reads. Except the American hardcover which is from ABE.)