If Kingsley Amis is remembered today, it’s probably as one of the UK’s original Angry Young Men (thanks to his 1954 debut novel Lucky Jim) or as the aged, dissipated shadow of his former self (thanks to a lifelong drinking habit). Between that initial success and his death in 1995, though, Amis displayed wide-ranging writing talents, and New York Review Books has been doing an admirable job of bringing them back to light. They’ve recently re-released a pair of his mid-career novels that are as fresh and provocative as anything newly written for 2014.
The first of these was originally published in 1969 at the leading edge of a fictional wave that would dominate the next decade. The Green Man helped launch a fad for supernatural horror that was carried on through the 1970s by the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz and continues today. The setting for Amis’s story is a country inn outside of Cambridge that gives the book its title; the innkeeper of the Green Man is Maurice Allington, who’s trying to juggle the demands of a business, a new younger wife, an uncommunicative teenage daughter, and his crotchety 79-year-old father. To Allington, the old legends about ghosts who occupy the inn have always been mere titillation for travelers, but during four stressful days, the long-dormant spirits start to awaken dangerously. Farce veers swiftly into dread (the comedy is actually funny and the spookiness is legitimately hair-raising—a combination that’s unique in my experience).
Allington is at the center of all the action and makes a charmingly reprehensible protagonist. He lubricates the creaky machinery of his life with enough booze to float a battleship, and during a family funeral is mostly preoccupied with seducing his wife into a threesome with his new mistress, but he does these things with great panache. His flaws are essential, really. The book would be far less interesting if it pitched a perfect saint against the forces of darkness. As critic Michael Dirda points out in the introduction, “A ghost story initially needs to convince the reader not in the existence of ghosts but in the existence of the normal, the familiar, the ordinary routine into which the ghost obtrudes.” It’s at this that Amis excels. He creates a convincingly human hero and a reality that’s wholly satisfying even before he introduces a single otherworldly element.
The second re-release is The Alteration, which first appeared in 1976. It posits a world in which the Protestant Reformation never happened and the papacy never lost its hold on the reins of government.* Modern society is therefore a Christian theocracy; scientific development is severely retarded, but the arts, at least those that glorify religion, are ascendant. Into this milieu steps Hubert Anvil, a ten-year-old chorister with an angelic voice the likes of which hasn’t been heard for generations. Luckily, the Pope wants to bring him from England to Rome to become a singing celebrity. Unluckily, the Pope insists that such a heaven-sent voice must not be deepened by the onset of puberty, so he schedules Hubert for a minor surgical—gulp—alteration.
If the boy declines this opportunity to become a heralded castrato, he’ll be defying all social conventions as well as political authority, which doesn’t leave many avenues for escape. (American readers will be pleased that an imaginative version of England’s New World colonies factors into Hubert’s plans.) The counterfactual realm Amis builds is meticulously arranged and described, but as in The Green Man, it’s his traditional storytelling skills that make it all pay off. Expert pacing, sharp dialogue, and fully-fleshed characters—whatever attributes one might hope for in a realistic novel are present in spades.
It may seem strange to some that a distinguished literary novelist would dabble in science fiction and fantasy, but Amis had great respect for those genres. Employing their tropes added considerably to his arsenal of expression and enabled him to write works that function on multiple levels, novels of ideas as well as entertainment. Few so-called serious writers of his time shared this attitude, and even now some barricades remain standing between literary artistes and their pulpier peers. Amis still has a trick or two to teach his descendants, and his fiction will stay contemporary for years to come.
* Before I picked up a copy of The Alteration, I was ready to tar Amis as a plagiarist—the scenario of a modern-day England trapped in a kind of ecclesiastic medievalism was pioneered by a lesser-known writer named Keith Roberts in his excellent 1969 novel Pavane. All was forgiven by the time I finished The Alteration, though. Roberts makes something of a mystery out of his alternate world, allowing the true nature of it to sneak up on the reader, while Amis makes everything clear at once. The two books couldn’t be more different in tone and purpose. More to the point, Amis acknowledges Pavane's precedence by having one of his characters read a secular, scientific alternative history by an author named … Keith Roberts.