History: first published in 1954
Plot: Jim Dixon is not particularly dedicated to his job as a medieval history lecturer at a provincial university. Having made a bad first impression in the history department, he is concerned about being fired at the end of his first year, and seeks to hold his position by maintaining good relations with his superior, the tedious Professor Welch - an often absent-minded and unbearably pompous dilettante. He also attempts, without success, to get his article on the economic ramifications of medieval shipbuilding methods published in an academic journal, in order to enhance his meager professional standing.
Dixon is largely without the tact and prudence expected in provincial bourgeois society - character traits displayed by his difficulty in accepting the pretension of Welch and others. Dixon has contempt for just about everyone around him, including his unbearable on-again off-again "girlfriend" Margaret Peel (a fellow, but senior, lecturer), who is recovering from a botched suicide attempt, having apparently swallowed a potentially lethal dose of sleeping pills. Via a mixture of emotional blackmail and appeal to Dixon's sense of duty and pity, she manages to trap Dixon in a relationship he would rather not be in. Welch's "arty" endeavors present several opportunities for Dixon to advance his standing amongst his colleagues and superiors, but these go horribly astray. Along the way Dixon meets Christine Callaghan, a young Londoner who is dating Professor Welch's son Bertrand - an amateur painter whose pomposity particularly infuriates Dixon - and comes to find out she has just as little patience for the world of artists and connoisseurs. After initially not hitting it off particularly well, the two begin to fall in love; this becomes an undercurrent for Dixon's further contempt toward Bertrand. Bertrand, a social climber, is using his connection with Christine to reach her wealthy and well-connected Scottish uncle, who is reportedly seeking an assistant in London.
The novel reaches its climax in Dixon's lecture on "Merrie England," which goes horribly wrong as Dixon, attempting to calm his nerves with a little too much alcohol, uncontrollably begins to mock Welch and everything else that he hates; he finally goes into convulsions and passes out. Welch, of course, fires Dixon.
However, Christine's uncle, who reveals a tacit respect for Dixon's individuality and attitude towards pretension, offers Dixon the coveted assistant job in London that pays much better than his lecturing position. Dixon finally has the last laugh, as Christine finds out Bertrand was also pursuing an affair with the wife of one of Dixon's former colleagues; she decides to pursue her relationship with Dixon. At the end of the book, Dixon and Christine bump into the Welches on the street; Jim cannot help walking right up to them, with Christine on his arm, and exploding in laughter at how ridiculous they truly are.
Review: I laughed out loud many times at Jim's misadventures, from his public, very drunken lecture on "Merrie England" to his burning his host's bed sheets and side table with a cigarette and desperately trying to cover it up with a razorblade, of course making a huge mess. The ending was perfect - just the right amount of comeuppance for the some of the more horrible characters. Amis' writing seeths with irony and cynicism, it is so much fun to read.
Opening Line: “’They made a silly mistake, though,” the professor of history said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.”
Closing Line: “The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other moises of the town and by their own voices.”
Quotes: “The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.”
Rating: Very Good.