Here on the western side of the Atlantic, where it’s thought that a novelist’s solemn duty is to labor for the universal betterment of man- and womankind, the popularity of Kingsley Amis has always been a bit of a puzzle. Apart from Mark Twain, Americans have never had much of a taste for satire. Comic fiction, yes — but a comedy that at least implicitly endorses the innocence of individual heroes at odds with the corruptions of society. Indeed had his hilarious 1954 novel, Lucky Jim, not fallen so nicely into that pattern — the story of an irreverent graduate student lampooning the fatuousness of his professors — it’s reasonable to wonder whether Amis’ increasingly astringent later novels would have found an American audience at all. Both in manner and subject matter, they remain, in the words of one critic, ”almost inscrutably British.”
Not that Britain hasn’t got its share of literary puritans as well. Although his 1986 novel, The Old Devils, was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction, Amis’ well-publicized bouts with critics determined to stamp out all but suitable references to women, gays, and other presumptively offended groups have stirred erce controversy. On the evidence of The Folks That Live on the Hill, however, Amis has thrived on it and emerged slyly triumphant. He seems almost to make a game of tormenting his detractors with his uniquely splenetic, yet ultimately forgiving, comic vision.
In terms of plot, The Folks That Live on the Hill appears to begin almost haphazardly. As in most Amis novels, that appearance is deceptive-part of the fun. Before it ends, the reader knows, the lives of the 8 or 10 sharply evoked Londoners so casually introduced will be intertwined almost as tightly as the door-slamming adulterers in a French bedroom farce. The novel’s protagonist is a gently acerbic aging librarian. Harry Caldecote ”had taken an early retirement deal just ahead of the new technology, clutching what had soon enough been revealed as a barely adequate lump sum. The fate in store for him had seemed to be mild, relative penury relieved by idleness. Neither seemed to be coming to pass.”
Part of Harry’s problem seems to be an unseemly degree of competence. He soon nds himself weighing a handsome — indeed almost preposterous — offer from an American academic institute. For a salary roughly equivalent to ”the annual budget of Venezuela,” Caldecote can do just about anything he likes. Except, that is, remain in London and see after the oddly variegated assortment of persons by whom he is alternately plagued, patronized, bored, bewildered, frightened, and touched up for loans that will never be repaid. And for whom he has come to feel personally responsible.
In part Harry yearns for escape, although the prospect of being marooned among Americans — ”often energetic and vivacious but devoid of wit” — is less than enchanting. But hardly anybody on his list of semi-dependents strikes him as even remotely capable of getting on without his assistance. Not Piers, his perennially destitute and scheming son, nor poor Bunty — his second wife’s daughter — terrified as she is by her swaggering lover Popsy, who affects the manner of an ”ethereal soccer hooligan.” Then there’s Fiona, Harry’s terminally alcoholic niece; Maureen, his aging ”bit of stuff”; and poor Freddie. Without Harry’s help, his hapless brother would be simply no match for his wife — the appalling Désirée, a grasping shrew equal to any Amis has previously created.
How bad are Freddie’s poems? asks their widowed sister, Clare. ”Put it this way,” Harry answers. ”If they were ballet dancers, you’d have to cover up your eyes until you were quite sure they’d all nished and gone off.” Yet at least Freddie feels some necessity to do something in the way of work — more than can be said of most Londoners in Amis’ fictive world. ”Dear oh dear, they must be the laziest people God ever made,” comments one of two Asian shopkeepers who keep a bemused watch over the eclectic lot on Shepherd’s Hill Road.
But far more resilient, as things work out in a wonderful series of comic surprises, than Harry imagined. As a thoroughgoing Tory, at least in the literary sense, Amis is far less worried about society corrupting the innocent than about the baleful effect of romantic individualism upon a tolerant and unresisting civilization. He lampoons his characters less for their personal failings — which, being fools like the rest of us, they can hardly resist — than for their absurd compulsion to make a public spectacle of their intimate lives. It’s a particularly English way of looking at things, and in Amis’ hands, at least, a uniquely funny and humane one as well.