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Book Review : A Novel of Fear, Loathing of Women

September 25, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis (Summit Books: $16.95)

Logs loosely laid make a better flame. If there is one striking characteristic of English fiction since World War I, it is the visible distance among the characters, which allows them to have at each other with the utmost elan.

Combat, using the various equivalents of rapier, billy-club or glass in the soup, is the hallmark of a great many apparently different writers: Murdoch, Spark, Compton Burnett, Lessing, Anthony Powell, Waugh, Wodehouse. Yes, Wodehouse. If pressed, I would say that the leading note of the English novel over the past half century or so was the "ping" of the tennis ball discharged by Freddie Threepwood upon the back of Lord Emsworth's prize pig.

Kingsley Amis has always written squarely within the tradition. From "Lucky Jim" on, both the blackness and the wit of his books have been drawn from the awfulness that the English can display to each other. The hero stands in the circle of battle, beleaguered by snobbish and pretentious boors. He is frequently quite awful himself, but redeemed by a sense of humor and his status as the underdog who, in one way or the other, gets his day.

An Assault on Women

Redemption never really comes in "Stanley and the Women," Amis' latest and blackest book. Its title could be "Stanley and the Harpies," because here what the protagonist takes on is nothing less than the entire class or gender of women. It is an assault so free-swinging and, in some ways so shocking, as to have given rise to some doubt as to whether it would be published in the United States.

Sensibly, Summit Books has brought it out here. It is a badly flawed novel, one that stumbles over its own anger. The protagonist--and the author seems to identify with him, if ruefully--is no mere mysogynist. He has a larger loathing that takes in Asians, Arabs, doctors and quite a bit else. The book is ragged, and lurches awkwardly between two different and hard-to-reconcile themes.

The main theme, the one that I suspect the author began with, is not Stanley's relations with his women but his attempts to care for his son, Steve. A drifting child of the times, Steve suddenly goes from generational eccentricity to schizophrenic madness. Stanley's effort to cope with this, to understand it, to deal with the doctors, makes a lucid, sardonic and moving account of one of the hardest circumstances that can befall a parent. But it is overshadowed and eventually outshouted by the mysogyny.

Stanley's former wife, who is Steve's mother, is a duplicitous and self-centered horror. Even worse is the hospital psychiatrist, Collings, who alternately flirts with Stanley, excoriates him, threatens him, and in general treats him, rather than schizophrenia, as Steve's real disease.

Stanley, advertising manager of a weekly magazine, makes a point of being unpretentious and battered by life. He looks for what help he can get. His family doctor is sympathetic; so is Nash, an old-fashioned psychiatrist who has nominal charge of Steve's case but has to exercise professional forbearance with Collings.

Intellectual Aspirations

Stanley's main support seems to be his present wife, Susan. She is literary and has intellectual aspirations. Knowing Amis, we should expect trouble. But through most of the book she is kind and supportive. She only begins to flag when Collings sends Steve to spend each night at home with the bland assurance that they should expect some smashing of crockery and other outbreaks.

The discovery of a switch-blade knife and a paper denouncing a cosmic Jewish plot is clearly unnerving. So is Steve's stormy incursion at an Arab embassy to reveal Zionist machinations. So is Steve's decision to spend the night in a tree so that his mind won't be pumped.

Finally, Stanley is called home to find Susan badly cut on the arm. She says that Steve had attacked her. Soon it turns out that the attack was faked and when this is suspected, Susan storms out. It seems that she is unbalanced as well, and has resented all the attention Steve had been getting.

It's too much. Susan's kindness and pluck during the ordeal of dealing with insanity at home is too well-rendered for us to accept her suddenly as a diabolus ex machina .

Throughout the book up to this point, there has been a steady bombardment of complaints about women. Stanley's family doctor, who can't stand his own wife, thinks they are all mad. Nash, the psychiatrist, who is on his fourth or fifth wife, says they are worse than mad; they are immoral. The second husband of Stanley's first wife, who joins Stanley in a drunken evening of masculine solidarity, explains that when he is not drunk he pretends to be so as not to have to make love to a woman he detests. Even a police sergeant, who turns up when Steve is arrested in the Arab embassy, says that at least the Muslims know how to treat their women.

Some of the denunciation has a brilliant excess to it, and some is apt; certainly as a brutal reminder of the chasm between male and female sensibility that, in some respects, may even have widened over the past decade. Clearly Amis thinks it has; and his furor is worth hearing if not crediting.

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