Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s first novel, was published in 1954 and promptly entered the pantheon of British postwar literature. It’s just been reissued by the invaluable New York Review Books Classics, which is the literary equivalent of receiving a case of Laphroaig. Our hero, Jim Dixon, a young university lecturer, grapples with a stream of improbable academic cranks, pretentious artists, neurotic women, a vengeful oboist and his own self-destructive streak. The novel is trenchant, knowing and audaciously misanthropic. It may be the funniest book ever written.
Yes, that’s an absurd statement (Jim himself would surely raise an eyebrow at such a sweeping claim). But Lucky Jim remains the benchmark for satire, misbehavior and the absurd demands of adult life. Strangely, some Lucky Jim partisans struggle through the book’s opening the first time they read it. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to take pause before they plow their way through it. Why is that? Like watching Shakespeare’s plotting villains or early episodes of Deadwood, it takes some time to acclimate yourself to the incredibly specific, rarefied language. But that makes it sound as if it’s an exalted enterprise: it’s not.
When you get up to speed you are thrilled to access to Jim’s worldview, even as the world conspires against him. Amis is a master of conveying Jim’s staggering disbelief at the foolishness he encounters every day. Naturally, he brings trouble on himself: he famously falls asleep while still smoking a cigarette, goes on a sherry bender before addressing the grandees of his school, and agrees to participate in a recital only to discover that he has a solo. He also endures through one of the most epic hangovers described in print. Yes, this is Jim’s plight. It’s our pleasure to experience his suffering. And that makes it all the more satisfying to share his unlikely triumph. —DAVID COGGINS