Angus Wilson has always been a paradoxical writer, assiduously concerned with the niceties of humanist behavior, but naggingly interested in the cruel and the sinister. This was very evident in his early short stories—such as the notorious “Strawberry Jam”—and fairly implicit in his novels. When The Old Men at the Zoo appeared four years ago it was admired by some readers, but others, including this one, found it a dismaying work. In it Mr. Wilson abandoned his natural talents for a portentous essay in fantastic allegory, culminating in a phantasmagoria of violence—with England at war with the Common Market countries and political prisoners sacrificed to the animals of the London Zoo in an attempted revival of the gladiatorial shows of Imperial Rome. Its obsessive quality suggested that it was the kind of novel that every now and then a writer feels he has to write, but this didn’t make it any more of a success. One now sees, however, that it was something of a necessary blood-letting for Mr. Wilson’s imagination: he faced his own inner fantasies with clarity and courage and, for the time being at least, subdued them. As a result, his new novel seems to me to have a serenity and a concentration on its subject, without the deflections that indicate the pressure of the author’s hidden private concerns, that is new in Mr. Wilson’s fiction and indicates a large development in his talents.
One must be careful, of course, about describing Late Call as “positive” or “affirmative,” though it is. Didn’t Bernard Sands, the tormented novelist hero of Hemlock and After, read with sardonic enjoyment the eager though presumably uncomprehending reviews that described a book of his in such terms as “Refreshing, if unexpected, source of renewed hope and affirmation in living” and “a sadly needed testimony to the endurance of the human spirit”? “And all this, Bernard reflected with amusement, proceeded from an irrational preoccupation with evil that was probably the result of nervous anxiety.” Mr. Wilson has not lost his own sense of evil, but instead of allowing it to run to fantasies at the margin of his main narrative, like the grotesque neo-Dickensian figure of the procuress Mrs. Curry in Hemlock and After or the richly corrupt Irish youth Larry Rourke in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, he has now been able to integrate it with his principal strength as a novelist, his impeccable sense of social fact. The result, in Late Call, is a desperate picture of the bleakness and flatness of life in a New Town on the edge of the English Midlands, where the gimmickry of affluence has become a way of life rather than an aid to living. American writers, investigating a wide range of air-conditioned nightmares, have been on to such subjects for years, but they are still new in English fiction.
Into this modish but hollow setting Mr. Wilson inserts his truly heroic heroine—the vehicle of his positives—Sylvia Calvert, now …