The Old Devil

Difficulties with Girls

by Kingsley Amis
Summit, 276 pp., $18.95

John Dollar

by Marianne Wiggins
Harper and Row, 214 pp., $17.95

Difficulties with Girls, Kingsley Amis’s eighteenth novel, finally reveals him as the W.C. Fields of English letters. His comedy has always rested on his own droll taking-the-mickey technique. His prose swarms on to the page like clowns into the ring and clambers all over the characters’ food, clothes, interiors, and inadequately camouflaged intentions, mimicking their speech, facial expression, and body language:

While he spoke, Porter-King had been moving his lighter up and down in the general area of his right hip, perhaps polishing it against the ginger-coloured dog-tooth check, more likely because he fancied there was a little pocket in his jacket round about there.

Or:

Mr. Valentine—“ began Patrick when the three were settled.

I wonder,” said the man referred to, sounding as if he really thought it might go either way, “if I could persuade you to call me Tim?”

These examples come from Difficulties with Girls. But the merry hooliganism of Amis’s early novels have dwindled to a tetchy weariness, a kind of sod-you melancholy. Even the reprise of Jenny Bunn from Take a Girl Like You doesn’t seem to have cheered him up. Amis women divide into two categories: manipulative bitches and a much smaller one where compassion, humor, and understanding combine with extreme sexual desirability. The original Jenny has always been top of the second.

In 1960, when Take a Girl Like You appeared, she was twenty, and the story ended with her losing her virginity to the lecherous but quite decent Patrick Standish. Now it is 1968: Patrick and Jenny are married and have moved from a country town to London, and Patrick from school teaching to publishing. He is slobbier than before and more sophisticated. Jenny is as innocent as ever and much more pathetic because she has grown used to being deceived and neglected, longs for a baby, and can’t get pregnant. At twenty-eight she is as squeamish as she was at twenty. When Patrick tries to explain to her what homosexuals actually do, she can’t bear to hear it. Her dealings with them are another matter: Steve and Eric, perpetually bickering in the next door apartment, afford opportunities for Amis to take off gay behavior and talk, and for Jenny to be faultlessly tolerant and compassionate. She has become altogether faultless, a Victorian pulp heroine, especially in the penultimate chapter where Amis indulges himself with a positively Victorian tableau:

A narrow sunbeam rather theatrically lit up part of the front of the building, missing by some yards the figure of Jenny at the sitting-room window. One of her pot-plants was near her on the sill and she might have been attending to it just before, but she now stood looking fixedly downwards through the glass, perhaps not seeing much. Soon she dropped her head further, paused and slowly turned away in a movement that expressed for Patrick [unseen by her in the street below] all he had ever seen of resignation, disappointment and loneliness. He …

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