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The Writer Bored With His Writing : THE FOLKS THAT LIVE ON THE HILL by Kingsley Amis (Summit Books: $18.95; 246 pp.;0-671-70816-3)

August 12, 1990|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a frequent contributor to the Book Review. and

Each new novel by Kingsley Amis--and this must be at least his 20th--generates an automatic shock wave among outraged leftists, a predictable round of ovations from conservatives and their fellow-travelers, and murmurs of grudging respect from brow-beaten soi-disant liberals whose literary standards are evidently so debased that Amis' bumbling, heavy-handed ironies look like rapier thrusts of wit to them.

To leftists (and, more recently, to feminists), Amis' curmudgeonly, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic views are simply anathema. Cultural and political conservatives either agree openly with these attitudes or take the more discreet tack of commending Amis for his refreshing ability to cut through "cant" ( cant , as used by this persuasion, invariably means left-wing--as distinguished from right-wing--twaddle). One feels sorriest in all this for the befuddled middle-of-the-road reviewers, who feel vaguely uncomfortable about Amis' attitudes, but constrained to admit that he is a very good writer all the same, a great wit, an elegant stylist, and a scathing critic of modern mores.

Precisely how Amis has achieved his current reputation as a writer to be reckoned with is an intriguing subject it would take too long to tackle within the limited scope of a book review. Some day, perhaps, someone will undertake a serious re-evaluation of his whole novelistic career, from "Lucky Jim" (1954) on, and find him, I would suspect, one of the most overrated writers of the postwar period. But this is a task that requires more fortitude and stamina and greater tolerance for undiluted tedium than this reviewer had left by the time she had dragged herself through the final pages of this not-very-long but quite interminable-seeming book.

"The Folks That Live on the Hill" introduces us to the little world of Harry Caldecote, a retired librarian, who lives in the "Shepherd's Hill" section of London. Harry is surrounded by a cast of distantly related misfits who serve as outlets for his patronizing concern and barn-door-sized targets for Amis' shafts of thick-skulled wit.

Harry lives with his sister Clare, a sensible, understanding woman who puts up with him as neither of his ex-wives has been able to do. Clare is intended as an exemplary woman: Even when she permits herself to tell Harry the occasional home-truth, she still defers to him, as his wives did not.

Harry's brother Freddie is a pathetic, watered-down version of Harry, wedded to an oppressively devoted woman called Desiree. Shielding Freddie from Desiree's constant attentions is one of Harry's helpful hobbies. Harry has a ne'er-do-well son called Piers, who's always extracting money from friends and relatives. And, though his wives have abandoned him, his first wife's niece Fiona, an alcoholic nymphomaniac, is on hand, in dire need of continual rescue, and his second wife's daughter Bunty also is around to provide a certain amount of drama as her ex-husband Desmond and current lesbian lover Popsy vie for her favor.

Feminists may breathe a sigh of relief, if they like. The dreadful Desiree is shown to have at least a tiny glimmer of decency in her concern for Freddie; and although Popsy is a nasty caricature of a "butch" lesbian, Amis--and Harry--view Bunty's lesbianism as an acceptable life style. What's truly repellent about this novel is not so much its political outlook as its sheer insufferability as a piece of fiction.

Plowing through pages of sloppily written prose, the reader will search in vain for any trace of the much-vaunted style that supposedly compensates for the disagreeable subject matter. A random sampling yields passages such as this:

"He had remembered as a boy reading in an encyclopedia where it had said that for every word in the Bible a million other words had been written on the subject--on that of the Bible as a whole or in some part, presumably, rather than on each successive word of its text. A tough one to shoot down, had been an early thought of his on the point, followed not so many years later by a supplementary to the effect that in the human or material sphere the nearest comparable disparity was between the number of words that women said and the number that would have to have been said about what they had said in order to produce a full or clear or straight account of any matter."

The sheer dead weight of verbiage in these two sentences is symptomatic of padding on a much larger scale. The story line is nothing more than a series of set-piece scenes in which Harry and/or his sister Clare cope with the predictable nuisances in their lives.

The gallery of lovable and not-so-lovable misfit relatives is a lifeless collection of characters without character. The humor, mostly at the expense of "pretension" (which for Mr. Amis means preferring pate to Bovril),consists of limp squibs delivered in a relentlessly jaunty manner best described as a kind of petit bourgeois aping of aristocratic complacency.

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