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The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (Summit: $16.95; 294 pp.)

April 26, 1987|Charles Champlin

Kingsley Amis' immediately previous novel, "Stanley and the Women" was a glum affair, reporting a continuing war of attrition between the sexes as seen through misanthropy-colored glasses and fueled by the incessant consumption of booze.

Stanley, a cynical, philandering and uninteresting newspaper ad executive, had a shrikelike ex-wife, an equally shrikelike current mother-in-law and a decent but ineffectual current wife.

The novel revolved about a tragedy, the descent of Stanley's son by his first wife into an apparently irreversible schizophrenia, characterized by terrifying fantasies and acts of violence to himself and to inanimate objects like TV sets.

Having established his characters (and created a chillingly realistic portrait of the disturbed boy), Amis at last merely abandoned them all to their futile lives.

It was a far cry from the satirical vigor of the great Amis works from "Lucky Jim" forward, when he was casting a cold eye on a new generation still more hotly ambitious than angry. By the time of "Stanley," the vision seemed glazed and the energy spent.

The more reason for a pleased surprise on encountering Amis' new novel, "The Old Devils," which finds his gaze sharp and clear again, his tongue aspish in its quick attack, his dialogue accurate as a transcription but better edited, his capacity to invent scene and character as generous as ever.

What is carried over from "Stanley and the Women" is a truly awesome and finally depressing amount of alcoholic consumption. Like a very good party, "The Old Devils" can leave you dreadfully hung over. The boozing starts on Page 11 as the local pub, the Bible, opens on the novel's first morning, and it continues almost without cessation at that pub and other pubs, in restaurants and private homes, on the beaches, in the hills and on the landing-grounds. I started to mark the wine-y pages and soon gave it up; there were so few unmarked pages.

It may well qualify, all of it, as precise social observation, and as such, it does define days of weary defeat and unquiet desperation--and endangered livers and kidneys.

Yet, what is to be found in "The Old Devils" that was lacking in "Stanley" is a quality of compassion, melancholy but earnest, for the more likable of the author's characters. All things being relative, what they achieve may seem not so much happy endings as consolation prizes, but ripeness is all.

For his less admirable characters, the Amis quill is, as ever, needlepointed. His setting is a (fictional) Welsh village, which is in a manner of speaking perhaps half a kilometer west of Dylan Thomas and a couple of kilometers south of Richard Burton, not far from the south coast.

The old devils, all in their 70s or as near thereto as makes no matter, are old friends of long standing and complicated relationships. Into the settled lives of these no longer very devilish villagers burst a pair of long-absent old friends, Alun and Rhiannon Weaver.

Weaver went off to London and made good, to a limited extent anyway, as a kind of professional Welshman, writing the odd poem and essay, being sage on television talk shows whenever anything Welsh is under examination.

He has made a sub-specialty as an expert on the life and work of a Welsh poet, lately dead, whom Amis calls Brydan but who inevitably evokes Dylan Thomas (although Amis does nothing so obvious as endow him with the tumultuous Thomas' life style). Brydan was the pre-eminent Welsh poet.

Weaver is a literary poseur whose modesty is a see-through cover for his inner confidence, miscalculated as it is, in his own greatness. But he looks the part.

"The skin had held up well, no more than pink, as if after a day of watching cricket; the famous mane of hair, once and for a great many years a deep bronze, was now snow white, at any rate much whiter than the streaky, lifeless gray it would have been if left to itself." One of the pals describes him as resembling "an upper second-rate actor."

Three dozen years or more before, in college years, his wife Rhiannon had been the first and unforgettable love of at least two of the surviving old devils. Weaver had made his own philandering way through two or more of the present wives. Thus the natives' return sets the old neural paths to twitching among the home folks as they haven't in years.

Within a novel of fewer than 300 pages, and told largely in dialogue at that, Amis has assembled a large cast of principal characters (nearly a dozen), with an elaborate web of cross-connections among them.

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