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Reviewed by:
  • Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist
  • Keith Wilson
John McDermott. Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 270 pp. $24.95.

John McDermott's chattily opinionated review of Kingsley Amis' work and "attitudes" is the first British book-length study of Amis. Its partisan defence is conducted against the assaults of a protean enemy, disguised by turns as the loony Left, book-prize panels given to bestowing their largesse on "shapeless, gimcrack or merely shoddy" works, naive critics incapable of distinguishing Amis from his characters, and American feminists who moved from mere annoyance at Jake's Thing to proscriptive hysteria: "Stanley and the Women had them jumping up and [End Page 817] down. Such is the power of feminist criticism in America, land of the free, that it even struggled to be published at all."

Many of the adolescent whimsies peppering McDermott's prose seem contrived simply to cock a snook at those rampaging American feminists: little else could explain such indulgences as "late in the novel, indeed on the night of Jenny's rape, Dick is shot in the backside. The novel thus ends with two bangs" or "I Want It Now is itself an instance of the oldest story of the lot, the fairy story, where a simple prick makes a world of difference." Unfortunately, behind the stylistic litter created by dubious jokes, blanket dismissals of contemporary novelists tainted by the faintest whiff of experiment, and redundant quoting (three times for the same exchange from Take a Girl Like You, although a mistake does produce minor variation), it is difficult to distinguish an argumentative line of sufficient substance to validate McDermott's title, although Amis' territory as a moralist is from time to time carelessly staked out. Ultimately, attempts to register this claim to high moral and aesthetic seriousness become little more than optimistic invocations of canonical names—Pope, Swift, Johnson, Joyce—with no genuine analysis in support of perceived similarities. Are we really intended to take seriously, for example, the preposterous conclusion that such locutions as "What was he doing that he ought not to do, or not doing that he ought to do?" and "She was getting tired of being told authoritatively that she was a fool for doing or not doing what she intended to do or not to do" have an "artfulness" that "evokes . . . the adjective 'Popean'" and bears comparison with "pairs of elements in a couplet from The Rape of the Lock"? Regrettably, I think we are, just as seriously as we are supposed to take the absurd dismissiveness of "Amis will be found to be . . . one of the few important novelists writing in his time."

McDermott does Amis' own assured reputation no favors with such strident extravagances and himself none with his slipshod scholarship. He must have long since passed the point at which he has to be told that token quotation of a couple of sentences from an article does not mean that further extensive indebtedness to it can go undocumented. I am gratified that he agrees with so many of my comments, published seven years ago, on Jake's Thing: I would have been even more gratified to see his indebtedness to them adequately acknowledged.

Keith Wilson
University of Ottawa


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pp. 817-818
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