LUCKY JIM was a likable chap indeed. But since his appearance in 1954, critics and readers have remarked the spreading "swinishness" of Kingsley Amis characters—as well as the distaste the author seems to feel for his own creations. It has always been noted in extenuation that literary satire thrives on vile bodies and that swinishness justifies a measure of pique. But now Amis stands revealed as a misanthrope sans merci. From Ending Up it is clear that if anyone asked him the old vaudeville question "Would you hit a lady with a baby?" Amis might gleefully reply: "No, I'd hit her with a brick." And mean it.
Amis is 52. The subjects of his unkind attentions this time are the genteel aged, people approaching second childhood through their half-past 70s —in short, a group about whom society feels notably ineffectual and guilty.
The denizens of Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage for a while seem to be little more than the kind of dotty ménage à cinq that Wodehouse might assemble on a bilious day: Adela Bastable, a large, dim, goodhearted spinster; her brother Bernard, a retired brigadier with a bad leg; Shorty, once a quartermaster sergeant, now a friend and factotum; George Zeyer, a bedridden history professor (Bernard's brother-in-law); and Marigold Pyke, a faded beauty who cutely refers to drinks as "drinkle-pinkles" and English pounds as "poundies," thus driving Bernard round the bend. Amis is also clearly at work on a mean microcosm for the sunset of Little England. Bernard, it appears, had to retire from his regiment 35 years ago after a homosexual episode with—yes—Shorty. What bothers Marigold about Shorty, however, is not this scandal, but the fact that although he contributes much of the money and housework and good sense that keep Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage shuffling along, he is not upper class.
Doddering Prey. With extraordinary skill, Amis manages to have fun with such things as Marigold's fear of losing her memory, Zeyer's stroke-induced nominal aphasia. (Nouns escape him and periphrasis ensues, with a passport, for example, becoming "the thing you have to show when you leave a country.") Even Shorty's interior dialogues with his own bowels are put to comic use, along with the fact that old people are often mean and silly, and fall down easily. Amis pursues his doddering prey with tiny twists of plot: through the use of stink bombs, squirt guns and even a heated orange-juice can of urine, Bernard tries to turn the group against Zeyer's dreadful, sad old dog, Mr. Pastry, and to convince Shorty that his bladder is ruined. A Christmas dinner scene, with bored and horrified younger generations present, is a comic masterpiece in which petty ferocity, mostly masked in genteel dialogue, shatters attempts at kindness and good cheer.
Motiveless malignancy, as represented by Bernard, surely exists in the world. Old age is no guarantee of wisdom or largeness of spirit. But somewhere before a surprise ending with more deaths than Act V of Hamlet, it becomes evident that Author Amis is enjoying his caricatured geriatricks in some way that might be appropriate to Goneril and Regan in King Lear but is simply hateful in Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage. Graham Greene once wrote that when trying to refine the pangs and foibles of men and women into fiction, a novelist must have a sliver of ice in his heart. A sliver of ice, yes. A lump of black bile, no.