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June 20-26, 2007

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'The Life of Kingsley Amis'

The Life of Kingsley Amis
(By Zachary Leader; Pantheon; 996 pages; $39.95 cloth)

How the finest satirical novelist of the 20th century became an upper-class twit in 40 short years, with the help of the usual catalysts: money, booze, divorce and politics. Amis was the son of "the most English man I know," a lifelong clerk at the Colman's Mustard company. After being suitably unimpressed with both Oxford and the Royal Army, Amis composed his first and best novel, Lucky Jim (1953). In it, a desperate loafer trapped in low-scale British academia solaces himself with beer and sabotage. This superb bio proves that Amis' dear friend, the poet Philip Larkin, closely edited Lucky Jim. Subsequent (and lesser) novels and poems proved Amis an ever more heartless master of invective and sarcasm, talents he turned against women and foreigners. A blustering anti-communist, Amis' true interests lay in the more comforting pursuits, which he listed in a poem: "Joking, smoking, soaking and (if you will permit the expression) poking." Zachary Leader's wit is keen, and he is well armed with all the less scintillating qualities a biographer needs: endurance, thoroughness and the ability to correct faulty memories with long-buried documents. His book insists that the old crustacean was often lovable: he's fondly remembered by his son, Martin, and was subject to pitiable loneliness that made him unable to bear a vacant house or a darkened room. In these nervous times, one has to admire the courage of Amis' self-indulgence. Caught having a quick whiskey before going out to lunch with the queen, the author snorted, "Look, I'm Kingsley Amis, you see, and I can drink whenever I want."

Review by Richard von Busack


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