Phonies, fakes, and comic characters crowd latest Amis novel

The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis. New York: Simon & Schuster. 294 pp. $16.95. Phoniness: Amis didn't like it in the '50s, and is still mocking it in the '80s. In his 1954 novel, ``Lucky Jim,'' his target was the idea that every educated young British male, no matter what his class, aspired to be a typical English gentleman. But, thanks to postwar reform, the university was producing a new type of graduate, one who didn't come from the upper classes and considered that the glorification of cleanness, honor, bravery, and stiff-upper-lipness smacked of affectation.

Amis's latest book, ``The Old Devils,'' is a masterly novel, the winner of the 1986 Booker Prize, Britain's prestigious literary award, but it is not likely to shake up the cultural scene in the way that ``Lucky Jim'' did. And it is set in Wales, where a close-knit group, friends from their college days 30 years ago, are joined by another couple from the past, Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon, who have been living in England where Alun has won himself a spot of fame.

In the eyes of the world, the stay-at-homes are a humdrum lot, none of them very successful, none of them truly happy (but make no mistake, this is a comic novel with comedy stemming from Amis's almost Dick-ensian ability to create vivid personalities). Their friendship seems to be sustained by habit but is far tougher than that, and their relationships, formed long ago when they were busy shattering the Seventh Commandment, form so many cross-links that a summary of them would sound like a plot synopsis stolen from an opera program.

Surprisingly for an '80s novel, we are not taken behind their bedroom doors but are, alas, not freed of their bathrooms. Amis likes to leave those doors wide open.

Friendship or no, Alun (born Alan) strikes an alien - a phony - note. In England he, an antihero if there ever was one, aspired to be ``the organ voice of Wales.'' It was to him the BBC turned when it needed what his Welsh friends self-mockingly term a colorful ``Taffy view'' (``Taffy'' from that libelous old English jingle, ``Taffy was a Welshman,/ Taffy was a thief/ Taffy came to my house/ and stole a leg of beef'').

Worse, Alun wants to be recognized as the successor to the popular Welsh poet Brydun (a cruel and unmistakable caricature of Dylan Thomas, whom Amis once accused of trying to please ``those who hanker after something sublimer than thought''). Since Brydun is a phony, and Alun knows it, Alun is the fake of a fake.

At first reading it seems as if, by the end of the book, Amis tired of Alun and simply threw him away. But there is something far more significant about Alun's collapse than that. First he is hit by the deadly realization that, willy-nilly, the Brydun imitation has taken over even his serious work. At the same time he commits the great sin in Amis's eyes: He abandons a friend who needs him. A fatal combination. What is left of him - a deflated sham? Nothing.

If Amis has crowned Alun ``King of the Phonies,'' he has endowed Rhiannon, his wife, with all his favorite virtues, making her one of the pleasantest (but not, however, the most convincing) women in recent fiction. She doesn't judge by appearance.

In an episode that would make a successful short story, Malcolm, a translator of ancient Welsh poems, tries to relive a romantic memory. He takes Rhiannon to one of their old haunts. Do you remember, he asks, do you remember? And she, fearful of hurting him, pretends that she does. Then, caught out, she weeps for his disappointment.

This is not the only offshoot from the plot - the others belong in the savagely comic category. In fact, there are so many subplots and the story is so thick with characters that the book would have made life a trifle easier for Somerset Maugham who read so fast and so compulsively that he had to take an extra book-filled trunk on all his travels to satisfy his reading appetite. ``The Old Devils'' could take the trunk space of at least two novels.

Besides, it would slow down even the speediest speed reader, for Amis has adopted a style that suggests the speech rhythms of a Welshman talking English. Take for instance: ``Up to something was what he could reckon on being charged with having been....''

Presumably it is also in the interests of authenticity that Amis has packed his dialogue with four-letter words. In fact, they appear so often that the shock value must have drained out of them by now, and one wonders what words are left to a thoroughly angry Welshman.

Throughout the novel, Amis hits out left and right against the villain phoniness. All the same, he treasures at least one minor lapse from strict integrity - and that fact underlines the hidden depths in this novel.

He leaves us with Malcolm: Working on his translation of a long poem, Heledd Cariad, he adapts and adjusts it to make the central character correspond with Rhiannon. ``...He had nothing to give her himself. But she had given him something. The poem, his poem, was going to be the best tribute he would pay to the only woman who had ever cried for him.''

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