REREADING LUCKY JIM

         We—me, and my English major friends—all loved reading Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim when we discovered it at Amherst in 1960. Beyond being hilarious, it spoke to our futures. Like Jim Dixon, we’d become professors, ending up trapped at some mediocre college.  Jim is stuck teaching history at a provincial university in England during the early 1950s.  Most of his students are bored; a few are ambitious pests.  Far worse, Jim is powerlessness over his future.  To keep his job, he must fake interest in the prattling of his department head, Welch, a domineering bore.

Reading Lucky Jim again four+ decades later, I’m struck by how funny it remains, and by how restricted my imagination was as a student about what my future could be. My vision then: I’d schlep through a dreaded Ph.D. program and, if I were lucky, get a college teaching job. Next, like Jim, I too would grovel, scheme for tenure, and write inane academic articles. “’Let’s see now; what was the exact title you’ve given it?’” Welch bullies Jim about an article he’s written. Jim’s title: “The economic influence of the development in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”  Jim’s thoughts on that name: “It was a perfect title, in that it crystallised the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.”

Yes, Jim is funny. As we prided ourselves we were, valuing sharp, caustic humor. Not yet economic captives, we could be funny with each other, or dates, or almost anyone—except directly to authority. Our targets were usually absurdities of adults. Laughter was our art and virtue. Wit was our integrity.

Jim’s humor is usually restrained to internal monologues. “He pretended to himself that he’d pick up his professor [Welch] round the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the staff cloakroom and plunge the two small feet in their capless shoes into the lavatory basin, pulling the plug once twice and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet paper.”

Rage fuels Jim’s anger. Wendy Lesser aptly notes, in Nothing Remains the Same, that, “A kind of withheld fury, a generally silent but nearly overpowering rage lies at the heart of Lucky Jim … The best parts of the book are about the objects of Dixon’s ire.”   When Welch evades answering Jim’s questions about job security, Jim internally responds, “For the first time since coming to the college, he thought he felt real, overmastering, orgiastic boredom and its companion, real hatred.”  And he yearns to be angrier.  “What he wouldn’t give for a purging draught of contempt, a really efficient worming from the sense of responsibility.” Here’s Jim on Atkinson, a fellow rooming-house boarder: “Dixon liked and revered him for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let that detestation become staled by custom.”

I shared Jim’s anger, raging at Amherst Puritanism (I had suspended for two weeks because of “excess chapel cuts”) and at corporate-conformist life. Deep under my anger was fear. Jack, my roommate, had proclaimed since we were freshmen, “Growing up is giving up.” I feared that, like Jim, I’d be unable to cope with, let alone master, money. Jim reviews,  “his financial position, to see if he could somehow restore it from complete impossibility to its usual level of merely imminent disaster. “  Worse was Jim’s fear, again like mine, of unemployment. Jim worries that Welch might fire him, “What would he do afterwards? Teach in a school? Oh dear no. Go to London and get a job in an office? What job? Whose office? Shut up.”

Jim and I shared other distressing characteristics. We drank too much. Here’s Amis’ classic description of Jim waking up with a hangover.  “A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Equally distressing, Jim and I seemed to have no ambition, beyond our shared desire to have a good time and avoid responsibility.  College teaching seemed my only viable way to earn a living—high school teaching would be far too much of a grind. A few Beatniks lived freely, but for that you had to be an artist, didn’t you? That took a lot of guts—rejecting a career and living without a regular paycheck.  I’d never felt a passion to teach, and had learned that I was no scholar, but what else could I do? Corporate life was absurd, as I’d learned through reading—Sinclair Lewis, J.P. Marquand, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Organization Man. What else was there? Lawyer? Corporate mouthpiece or ambulance chaser? Advertising? Paid professional liar?

College teaching had some appeal. I loved literature, or more accurately, reading fiction. Favorite English professors had awoken me to intellectual life and the satisfaction, as well as the struggle, of trying to write well. Those inspiring teachers seemed to live large, satisfying lives. Perhaps I could inspire new generations to love reading great books and to write well. But even beyond my lack of calling, I had other hesitations about college teaching. First, jobs were scarce. More importantly, my father, a math professor at a college he considered inferior, regarded many of his colleagues as small-minded and thought academic politics dismal. He found the men he met in his other career, international quality-control consultant, far more interesting and enjoyable.

Still, in my junior year, I signed up for an advanced Latin seminar, because good grades in college Latin should help in getting into a top graduate school. (I’d had three years of Latin in high school, sort of liked it.) When I told my favorite English teacher of my decision, he smiled and said “Oh, going to be a great man, huh?”  I attended two Latin classes before acknowledging I was overwhelmed and uninterested. My fantasies of being a great man perished, never to return.

Later that year, a professor in an English honors class asked me whether a poem was properly classifiable as “gothic or romantic.” What difference does that make,” I snarled. “I want to know if it’s good.” He peered disdainfully at me, then warned, “You’re going to have to know how to make this kind of distinction when you get to graduate school.”  Then I’m not going, I silently vowed.

But I wavered—being a professor meant summers off and a salary. Otherwise, back to the what-else dilemma. From a third generation Irish-American family, on scholarship, without influential connections, I could do——what? Start a small business? Literally inconceivable.  As far as I knew, the only businesses Irish-Americans   ran were bars. None of my college friends’ dads were entrepreneurs. No one I knew at college, from friend to professor, ever mentioned, let alone dreamed of, opening a small business. It just wasn’t done. Somehow I’d absorbed an erzatz version of the English upper-class scorn of being in “trade.” Graduate from Amherst, which spoke of its students as “future leaders,” and run a little store? I think not.

Neither Jim nor I understood women or love. Though I proclaimed myself a romantic and dreamt of falling in love, women were as mysterious to me as they were to Jim. The woman in Jim’s life is Margaret, another teacher, “small, thin, and bespectacled, with bright make-up,” neurotic and apparently his fate. Although Jim doesn’t understand how it’s happened, somehow they’re a couple, sort of. Not that she understands him.  “She had been known to interpret some of his laziest or most hurtful actions or inactions in this light [positively], though not, of course, as often as she’d interpreted some gesture of support as lazy or hurtful.” Jim’s love life is as mired as his career. “He’d never be able to tell Welch what he wanted to tell him, anymore than he’d be able to do the same with Margaret.” He muddles on, unsure if she cares for him, let alone if he cares for her.

Then Christine appears, the gorgeous young girlfriend of Welch’s son, Bertrand, a self-proclaimed-artist. “The notion that women like this [Christine] were never on view except as the property of men like Bertrand was so familiar to him that it had long ceased to appear an injustice.” Bertrand has returned to the university in hopes of meeting the wealthy Gore-Urquhart, Christine‘s uncle, and landing some vaguely defined job. Christine initially appears to be as pretentious as Bertrand. When Jim verbally jabs at Bertrand for his gushing admiration of the rich, Christine takes offense. “I’d rather you didn’t talk in that strain … I always get a bit irritated by that sort of thing. I’m sorry. I can’t do anything about it; it’s just a thing about me, I’m afraid.” 

“Seen anybody about it yet?” Jim snaps back.

 Soon however, Jim discovers that she has a rebellious streak, and mutual attraction follows.  Plot complications ensue, but neither can summon the courage to take decisive action. “It’s just the sort of stodgy, stingy caution that’s the matter with us,” he tells her. “You can’t even call it looking after number one.”

As Wendy Lesser observed, Christine is a “physically-attractive cipher.” Readers never see her inner life. Jim, however, occasionally, sees his isolation from women.  “Dixon fell silent again, reflecting, not for the first time, that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about other people or their lives.” Me too, usually after some brutal shock from a woman I’d been going with: she would transfer to the University of Kansas or had tried to commit suicide or had decided to marry her old prep-school sweetheart. As with Jim, these occasional shocks did not provoke curiosity, let alone awareness, of my isolation from intimacy, let alone any intention to try to do something about it.

Jim lives in a pre-sexual liberation world.  He and Christine don’t kiss, let alone make love. Indeed, we discover that Christine hasn’t made love with Bertrand. Christine exists, as far as Jim and Amis see, to make a man happy. For Amis, a woman’s role is to be desirable; he is surprisingly comfortable with male dominance. “It was queer how much color women seemed to absorb from their men friends, or even the man they were with for the time being. That was only bad when the man in question was bad; it was good when the man was good.”

My college love life was sadly like Jim’s. Those were Puritan, pre-pill, pre-feminist times. No girls were ever allowed ever in Amherst bedrooms. During these twilight years of “the feminine mystique,” the major task of most women at Smith or Holyoke (the nearby women’s schools) was, I realized much later, to become engaged.

Jim’s career careens downward. Welch pushes him into giving a speech on “Merrie England” to a town-gown function. Everyone who matters is there, including Gore-Urquhart. Jim drinks (surprise) and delivers his talk in an increasingly-rambling parody of Welch’s bombastic style. Welch promptly fires him.

E.M. Forster declared: “Happy endings are a novelist’s prerogative.”  Amis employs that prerogative. Love conquers all. Jim ends up with Christine. And Jim’s rebellious wit, his inability to put up with fools, appeals to Gore-Urquhart, who hires Jim as his private secretary. Jim’s job duties: “It’ll be mainly meeting people or telling people I can’t meet them.” Hey, I thought at age twenty, finally a job I’d be good at. With the job, Jim gets to move to London and be free. “Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preliminary, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.” He certainly isn’t going to teach. “There were compensations for ceasing to be a lecturer, especially that of ceasing to lecture.”

         No one would remember or praise Lucky Jim today if it were viewed as a romance. Christine is only a device. Lesser correctly notes that, “the weakest parts of the book are the love scenes.”  The book continues to appeal because of its savage humor, and the appeal of the inept rebel who somehow prevails.

         Occasionally, a contemporary critic revisits Lucky Jim, and finds it remains hilarious. A New Yorker review praised: “Today, you’re impressed by how much Lucky Jim has retained its fizz. How does a bright mind cope with creeping boredom?  Trying to pass as a capable young man, Dixon indulges in a full repertory of facial expressions … and anti-cant exercises.” Christopher Hitchens agreed, stating in an Atlantic Monthly essay that the book is “wildly and anarchically funny.” Jonathan Yardly also concurred in the Washington Post. “Remarkably, Lucky Jim is as fresh and surprising today as it was in 1954.” Roger Kimball, as managing editor of The New Criterion, stated, “Lucky Jim is one of the funniest novels ever published.”

Lucky Jim is a funny comic fable, young-man department. Jim even gets to belt Bertrand, flattening him after Bertrand provokes a fight. After rereading the book and seeing its limits, I wondered—why do I want to there to be more in it? So what it’s only a witty fairy-tale? Hilarity should be enough.  So what if Amis/Jim don’t comprehend women at all? So what if the characters are always consistent? Yes, Bertrand is always pompous, Margaret always neurotic. Consistent is what comic characters are. So what if no demons lurk in Jim’s soul and he’s just a rascally troublemaker we’re meant to love? Hey, wasn’t I too a loveable rascal at Jim’s age?

 I wanted a book that had spoken to me so deeply almost fifty years ago to have more depth. I’d remembered Lucky Jim as being both hilarious and right-on about life, offering a vision of what living authentically required. But the book doesn’t have that vision. Instead, much as I still loved the book’s wit, I was also reminded that I’d been mistaken back then to see wit as THE essential quality, rather than one of many. 

While Jim has doubts, questions and insecurities, his enemy is clear— authority. Sure, he drinks too much and rages, but that’s just “part of his charm” (in Ring Lardner’s great phrase). The potential dooms he faces are humiliation or poverty, not self-destruction. No demons lurk in Jim’s soul; there’s no hint that he needs to seek inward, learn how to take care of himself both spiritually and physically, try to understand love and women.

We English majors were similar. While we loved to talk and laugh, candor wasn’t part of our agenda. Nor did even the best English classes pierce to the intimate.  I didn’t know what was deep inside even my closest friends. No candor with a girl friend either, and certainly not with myself. Oh sure, I felt tension at times and got angry. But who didn’t? As I went through college, I became adept at projecting and believing in my seemingly confident, witty self, and increasingly able to unconsciously smother inner conflicts or fears, aside from about earning a living.

Some of my college friends became English teachers and liked it, becoming neither Jims nor Welchs. I went another way. After two years in Manhattan publishing—if Jim thought teaching was horrible, try writing ad copy for textbooks or mediocre books on nursing—I went to law school, interested in some kind of public service (and hoping that law would offer tolerable ways of earning a living.) Next I moved to Oakland, California, working in Legal Services in a mostly poor black neighborhood and plunging into “the Sixties:” Anti-Vietnam War protests, growing my hair long, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, and most of all, seeking.

         That seeking included uncovering inner demons. I’d continued to drink too much through the years I lived in Manhattan. We were, as a friend from those days later put it, “All in a pre-alcoholic state.” On the other hand, I did have the ironic good fortune that there was only one drug I could abuse then. (Unlike Jim, I wasn’t a smoker.) In California, with a panoply of drugs available for experimenting, my addict-demon had much to work with. But I’d begun to work out regularly and had resumed playing basketball, a passion of my youth. These required developing sufficient control over my persistent addict demon. For years, during afternoon drives to work out or play basketball, I’d struggle against a beguiling voice urging, “Take the day off. Have a couple of drinks. Smoke a joint. You’ve had a rough day. You deserve to enjoy.” I evolved several methods of caging that demon, including regularly meeting a good friend at the Y. “Hey, I can’t stand him up,” I’d tell the demon. Eventually I’d simply think, and sometimes shout aloud, “Oh, you again. Just shut up.”

My most ferocious demon proved to be fear itself. The depth and virulence of fear was revealed in my first (very painful and very truthful) LSD trip. I saw, felt, and knew that buried, unconscious fear had warped my life. Fear far deeper than over earning money. Fear of women, fear of love, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear, Fear, FEAR.

Why such fear? I can’t give a definitive answer, nor comprehend which factors contributed what to my pervasive fear: My parents were from the Depression generation and passed their economic fears onto me? I wasn’t by nature a fighter, but, unless a Gore-Urquhart showed up, still had to struggle to create my place in the ”real” world? I felt I would never be passionately loved by a woman? Perhaps fear was innate, born in me? Whatever—the fear was there. What mattered was to recognize it and learn to manage it. An onion-peeling process if there ever was one.

While engaged with that, I lived an economic life that proved to be far more prosperous and open than Jim’s, or of my fearful college imagination. (How about that: I’d worried about the wrong things.)  Legal services was a great boon, both “doing well by doing good” and on-the-job-therapy. Once, as I ranted against the evil U. S. government and its Vietnam War to my father, he wryly observed, “True, but it’s not every country that would pay you to fight it.” Burning out on legal do-gooding after six years, I started a law firm with two Legal Services colleagues. Although without connections, we managed to support ourselves for three years and remain friends. Then we burned out on practicing law, period. I stumbled economically on, supporting myself as a lawyer-for-hourly-hire, a Kelly-girl of law. Earning enough to get by, I loved having ample free time. Freedom—that’s what I wanted. Whether I was an artist or not, I was certainly a bohemian.

An old friend, who I’d met through Legal Services, led me to Nolo Press, in Berkeley, the pioneer publisher of self-help law books. I became an author, if not the great novelist I’d fantasized becoming when young. Over the last three decades, Nolo and I have done well financially. “Royalties” is a magnificent word and an even better reality. So­—surprise, I earn my living from participation in American free-enterprise, a system so diverse and vibrant that even I could find a satisfying place in it.

In college, I’d assumed that my economic possibilities were as bleak as Jim’s were in impoverished, post-World-War-II England. I believed in Lucky Jim, because it presented wit and not-suffering-fools as the only and sufficient qualities to lead me to freedom. if I held to those qualities I too could (somehow) be free. Believing in Lucky Jim was one aspect of my general belief in that I’d discover freedom by reading fiction—in some mystical way, reading novels would lead to illumination, wisdom, Truth with a capital T. Well, sometimes I’d learn from a novel, especially when I identified with a character. Novels taught me I wanted no part of corporate life. But mostly my learnings provided only hints of how to live, little clues of who I was. Robert Frost famously defined poetry as, ”a momentary stay against confusion.” That applies equally to my novel reading. What I couldn’t see when young was the momentary part. Which of course is no fault of Lucky Jim. Just that rereading that novel brings back my youthful naiveté about what literature could offer me.

On rereading now, Lucky Jim it strikes me as an innocent book from an innocent time. Perhaps that’s why, for all its superb humor, it seems to have faded for the reading public, despite an occasional critical rave. I couldn’t find it in any of Berkeley’s bookstores, though it remains in print. The book would seem speak to today’s college students, especially English majors. College teaching prospects, except perhaps for untenured gypsy scholars, are far worse for English Ph.D.s than when I graduated. Plus the larger economic world has certainly grown harsher. But the book seems little known on college campuses. The college English professors I know report that their students aren’t familiar with Lucky Jim, though some enjoy Amis’ son Martin’s novels.

Finally, rereading Lucky Jim brings back how little I knew myself back then. But at least I mostly enjoyed myself then, naēve as I was. My friend Patsy said of our college days, “That was before we knew we were intense.” My friend Ellen observed about us when young, “That was before we knew that we hated ourselves.” I could say that I wish I’d been able to plunge into inner learning when I was in college, but that ignores how repressed Amherst and most of the U.S. was, as well as myself. Understanding who I am, how to live authentically, how to love, proved to be long and winding process. And I can certainly be a slow learner. Fortunately, I was still young during “the Sixties.” I wanted to rebel and explore, and I lived in a culture that stimulated and sustained my instincts—although as a hippie=seeker I couldn’t see that the process was endless. Looking far back now through the prism of Lucky Jim, I wonder at the me before change, the innocent, volatile, bottled-up bundle of energy I was in college, and marvel that I managed to have as much fun as I did. And I also enjoy Lucky Jim for its ferocious humor, even if it’s not the beacon for existence I once took it to be. 

[2008]