LUCKY JIM. Kingsley Amis
272 pgs. Penguin Classics (1993)
"In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Kingsley Amis's 1954 novel "Lucky Jim," David Lodge puts forth several possible influences Amis relied upon when writing the novel. Probably the most significant theory advanced by Lodge is that Amis wrote his book with one eye on Graham Greene's novel, "The Heart of the Matter." Lodge convincingly argues that "Lucky Jim" is actually a comic inversion of Greene's story. Of course, if one has not read Greene's novel, this point may not register on the radar. But what is important is that Lodge proves to us that "Lucky Jim" is much more than a collection of funny scenes. Most will read this book because they have heard that it is uproariously funny, which it certainly is, as the book does contain enough humor to cheer up the most heartless people among us. However, don't get hung up on the humor and forget to look deeper.
"Lucky Jim" is set in the seemingly unfunny world of academia, specifically British academia. The hero of the story, James "Jim" Dixon, is a young man on the make, fresh out of school and dutifully working at his first real job; a position in the history department at an obscure provincial university. Jim really hates his job. This hatred stems from the cast of assorted characters Jim must put up with on a daily basis. Jim's biggest problem is Professor Welch, the head of the history department. Welch is a forgetful fool who holds Jim's future job in the palm of his hand. Then there is Margaret, a neurotic fellow lecturer who latches on to Jim and won't let him go. Welch's son Bertrand, an arrogant "artist" who torments Jim while flaunting his girlfriend Christine (who Jim quickly becomes enraptured with, creating a tension that leads to several hilarious confrontations between the Welch family and Jim) also makes an appearance. Rounding out the cast of quirky characters is an annoying student who knows more about medieval history than Jim.
Of course, Jim causes problems for himself with frightening regularity. He sets his bed on fire during a weekend retreat at the Welch's, delivers a lecture on "Merrie England" after imbibing way too much alcohol, and makes phony phone calls to the Welch house in an attempt to discredit Bertrand. The humor is classic British wit: slow and masterfully written in the way only the British can achieve. Jim's description of a hangover will bring a knowing chuckle from anyone who has ever downed too many at the bar. These scenes are extremely funny and help to drive the book to its happy conclusion.
Amis spends an enormous amount of time poking fun at the British upper class. Welch and his family are endlessly skewered as Jim constantly shows them up. That Jim ultimately conquers his enemies must be Amis's way of showing the ultimate triumph of the "commoner" over the entrenched British aristocracy. This tension reached an acme after World War II, when the British educational system expanded its programs to include the British lower classes (it is no mistake that Jim mentions his stint as a lowly soldier in the R.A.F. during the war, thus qualifying him as a sort of everyman hero).
What didn't work as well in "Lucky Jim" is the interaction between Jim and Christine. These encounters tend to be wordy and too steeped in emotional minutiae. Even some of the dialogue between Jim and Margaret ends up becoming rather tedious compared to the rest of the book. This is probably due to the comedic scenes in the book; they are so funny that everything else pales by comparison. But the dialogues do serve an important purpose in the story: they reveal the concerns of people trying to make their way in a world that places them at the bottom of the ladder.
"Lucky Jim" would make an excellent gift for anyone who needs a good cheering up. It also might help someone who is nervous about speaking in public for the first time (the embarrassment Jim suffers because of his drunken speech will show anyone that their attempt at oration cannot possibly approach the disastrous level Jim reaches). Any people submerged in the agonies of their pre-tenure years should also read this book. "Lucky Jim" is funny, eloquent, insightful, and should be read in conjunction with Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat" for the ultimate experience in British humor."