Upmanship

Jake’s Thing

by Kingsley Amis
Viking, 264 pp., $9.95

As a comic novelist Kingsley Amis still practices the revival of the robust masculine tradition of English farce with its special taste for the sententious that skids into the vernacular and the joke of the flat tire. Not for the dramatic flat, but for the rising paranoia of the slow puncture. He is the connoisseur, even the pedant, of the air going out and things running vulgarly down. One looks at the thing at first with the healthy impulse to give it a kick and then have a drink. The object may have started its life as a gleaming example of contemporary ersatz, but the rapid onset of repairs shows it to be on the way out just as it came in, and a deceiver of hopes. Then a doubt enters the owner’s mind: is the flat “one of those things” or is it oneself? All comic writers are serious in their grudges.

The thing that worries Jake in Kingsley Amis’s latest piece of studied spoofing is his penis. Once exuberant, hardened in the pursuit of lust and love, emblem of the exhilarating performance of the libido, it has become bored. Why? Because Jake is fifty-nine? Because he has been in hospital, ulcerated, in trouble with the canals that connect the liver and gall bladder, and other bothers “not associated with satyriasis”? Where is the old rampant form? He is a lecturer in early Mediterranean history at Oxford, living out of term in London. Why has he fallen silent and inactive with his third wife, Brenda, who likes a chat with her tedious friend Alcestis and her husband Geoffrey, “Christendom’s fucking fool”?

When Brenda can get a word through to Jake she wonders what has happened to the affections. How, as the late P.G. Wodehouse once said, has the sand got into civilization’s spinach? Is Jake turning into a man’s man, modern style, who gets up in the morning, “shat, shaved and showered, and wearing his light-weight crease-resistant suit”? He can “get it up” if he wants to, but why doesn’t he want to much? Does his salvation lie in the current remedy of dragging his mind and body round to the psychiatrist’s garage and truculently submitting it to the ungleaming jargon of an expert in “inceptive regrouping,” and beginning on a session of “nongenital sensate-focusing,” the reading of tit magazines—Jake had even given that up—and group therapy in the nude? Perhaps the air will get back into the tire, for among other things the psychologist has an ingenious electrical machine which when properly attached to the organ can “commensurate” the variations of erection during sleep, for a start.

It must be said that Jake’s Thing is a very funny book, less for its action or its talk than in its prose. The wretched Dr. Proinsias Rosenberg, MD, MA (Dip. Psych) of Harley Street, with an interest in a therapy lab in McDougall’s Hospital in a very outer …

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