Amis's Domestic Satire Is a Comic Class Act
THE FOLKS THAT LIVE ON THE HILL, By Kingsley Amis, New York: Summit Books, 246 pp., $18.95 `THE Folks That Live On The Hill'' is Kingsley Amis at his best. Amis is compared by critics to Evelyn Waugh because he seems to uphold old-fashioned standards in his prose. But unlike Waugh's art, his is inclusive and insinuating rather than exclusive and pure. Waugh is quotable; he took the king's English to the corners of the empire.
Amis at his best creates voices that express characters that he no longer has to travel to observe. The empire has imploded; Pakistanis run the wine shop. The walls of the global village are paper thin. Amis was once a bad boy of English fiction (``Lucky Jim'' was published in 1954), but he is now an outspoken fan of Prime Minister Thatcher.
The hero of his new novel, Harry, is a paternalistic ex-librarian who is trying hard to be more tolerant. First he must tolerate his immediate family; twice married, he has children, as well as nephews and nieces of several descriptions. He lives with his sister, Clare, who is the center of value in his life and the novel and one of Amis's finest creations.
Clare is a widow who remains faithful to her husband; she maintains his flute collection and keeps his dog Towser. As our hero gets progressively ``delibrarianized,'' his responsibilities to his extended family begin to take their toll. His interest in ladies and drink does not flag; his routine of pub and club provides essential order:
``He liked being where he was, which these days boiled down to this house, the surrounding quasi-village, the King's, the Irving, the occasional pal, the occasional Maureen, the occasional library, the occasional trip, a couple of which a year might be abroad.''
Clare is always there, and helps him do what good he can for whoever it is that claims his attention at the moment. Companionship is the great theme of the book. His brother Freddie, a failed '50s poet, is married to the vivacious, voluble, and vulgar D'esir'ee. Harry contrives to get Freddie published again without interference from D'esir'ee.
Then there is Bunty, a daughter by Harry's first ex. Once married to Desmond, who owns a restaurant and wants her back, Bunty is in a potentially threatening relationship with a lesbian named Popsie. Even more troubled, and troubling, is a daughter by his second marriage. Fiona drinks too much and has the habit of inviting minicab drivers into her sack. Her loneliness - how important the telephone, the TV! - and the danger she represents to herself haunt Harry.
Harry dreams of a sinecure in Brunei (dusky maidens included). Eventually he is offered a job in America. He reads the letter to Clare and she says it sounds too good to be true. The place is in the ``far West up by the Canadian border. I can't go there,'' he says.
He can't go there because - like it or not - he's at home in London, Shepherd's Hill to be exact. Harry, like Amis, is a conservative. That is, he likes the way things are, no matter how bad they are. It's political, too: ``Arms cuts, State education and the Arts Council were the sort of thing he thought he was equal to seeing off,'' - but it's more through the characters that we sense the quality of Harry's world.
Fiona, for example, uses the volume control on the TV to control how much of her neighbor's noise she must take in. Once the TV is off: ``Quite soon her ear was caught by an irregular series of groans that were half low cries of grief and dread, signifying no mere physical agony but recognition that the world was a cheap, mean, messy, petty little place as well as one of horror and an unending sense of loss.''
Amis's satire is not apocalyptic, it's domestic - and more powerful for that. Amis's art has matured along with the man. With age, too, has come the courage to allow comedy to overtake satire. Amis is more like Chaucer than Waugh. His ear is for the language of others, his standard urbane and ultimately kind.
In this novel, Harry's ne'er-do-well son Piers turns the satire into a comedy with a resolution of difficulties and a better future for all, more or less. Piers, a great borrower, has invested some money for Freddie and kept it secret from D'esir'ee, and has a cash gift for Clare, too. Harry, tight this time, wouldn't give him any, so he's left out.
Harry left out means that the novel can end with Clare. Clare has kept house for Harry and Towser, the big, bouncy, slobbery dog (even though she ``continually longed for his death''); Clare can actually say, and mean it, ```I don't think there are any really bad people. Just awful ones. The bad ones are all in books.'''
Clare's decency, in the end, connects the novel to a world of refinement and art, and to, well, class, - which had been altogether missing from Shepherd's Hill, or disappearing from it. Tolerance without hypocrisy is what Harry seems to aim for, in his best moments. Harry is a class act, and Amis's novel is a vindication of a certain way of being conservative today.