History: Written in 1969, a Times Literary supplement reviewer described The Green Man as “three genres of novel in one”: ghost story, moral fable, and comic novel.
Plot: The novel is set in and around The Green Man, an inn between London and Cambridge owned by Maurice Allington, a 53 year old man with a second wife, a teenage daughter and an 80 year old father living with him in the inn’s upstairs apartment. The inn and its name date back to the 14th century, and the inn’s charm is further embellished by a history of haunting related to a 17th century owner, Thomas Underhill, a Cambridge scholar who dabbled in the occult. Underhill was associated with two unsolved murders, including that of his wife, which could not be traced back to him.
As the novel unfolds, Allington is beset by a number of difficulties, including his father’s death by stroke at dinner one night, and a drinking problem that causes hypnagogic jactitation and hallucinations; Maurice compounds his problems by pursuing an affair with his doctor’s wife, neglecting his daughter Amy, whose mother, Maurice’s first wife, was run down in an automobile accident, and attempting to seduce both his current wife and his mistress into a menage a trois, which backfires when the two women take an enthusiastic interest in each other and effectively shut him out of the orgy.
During this time Maurice begins to see ghosts around the inn – a red-haired woman, presumably Underhill’s wife, in the hallway, a small bird floating above his bathtub, the specter of Thomas Underhill himself in the dining room – and yet has a difficult time communicating this to his family and friends, who assume that heavy drinking and the stress of his father’s death are causing him to hallucinate. Maurice’s own investigations take him to All Saints’ College, a fictional Cambridge college (modeled on All Souls’ of Oxford) of which Underhill was a fellow, and at which his papers are secreted. There he sees Underhill’s own record of having used his black arts to entice and then ravish young girls from the village.
In the meantime Maurice has discovered his own notes of a drunken, and forgotten, midnight conversation with Underhill, during which Underhill begins to enlist Maurice’s help in his as yet undisclosed scheme. This involves Maurice’s unearthing of Underhill’s nearby grave, in which he finds a pre-Columbian figurine of silver that Underhill requests be brought to another midnight meeting in the inn’s dining room.
That afternoon, having left the scene of the failed orgy, Maurice finds himself in a strange time warp, as it were, in which all molecular motion outside of his drawing room ceases. He finds himself in the presence of a young, suave man who it comes to be understood is God himself. The purpose of the visit is to warn Maurice against Underhill and ask him to aid in Underhill’s destruction, but during the conversation Amis has the young man elaborate an interesting sort of theology, explaining the Creation and God’s powers within it. The young man leaves Maurice with a silver crucifix, as a sort of counter-weight to the silver figurine.
When the midnight meeting comes about, Underhill attempts to delight Maurice with a sort of holographic, yet primitive pornography show; Maurice feels himself as in damp, murky cave, on the walls of which are projected bizarre sexual scenes. As the show becomes more terrifying, Maurice realizes that Underhill has absented himself; when he hears his daughter crying out from the road in front of the inn, he realizes Underhill’s intentions. In the climactic scene, Maurice uses the crucifix to stun Underhill and runs outside, where he confronts the entity Underhill had used the figurine to conjure: the green man, a collocation of branches, twigs and leaves in the form of a large and powerful man. The thing is bent, evidently, on killing Maurice’s daughter Amy. By hurling the figurine back within the graveyard Maurice saps Underhill’s power and destroys the green man. Underhill’s purpose had been, apparently, to have Amy killed as a sort of experiment in lieu of the sexual depredations which are now forbidden him by his lack of corporeality.
A final scene wraps up the novel’s loose ends: Maurice destroys the figurine, and he employs the modish, cynical and repellent parish priest (who makes God out to be, in the young man’s words, a “suburban Mao Tse-tung”) to exorcise Underhill and his green man. Maurice’s wife leaves him (for his mistress), but his daughter proposes, and he agrees to, a plan to move away from The Green Man and get a fresh start. Maurice is somewhat relieved, while recognizing that he will remain until his death trapped in all of the faults, petty and otherwise, that constitute him as Maurice Allington.
Review: The novel is in one sense slight – an enjoyable ghost story laced with the sort of witty and crusty obiter dicta common in Amis novels – and yet it constitutes a more than negligible statement about personality, purpose and ethics in the late-20th century world of its setting. Thomas Underhill’s lust for pubescent girls still dominates him after three centuries of extra-corporeal existence – his mastery of the black arts and his circumvention of death have not released him from his banal perversions. Thus Maurice sees something of Underhill in himself when his wife throws up his orchestration of the orgy as just a way of “experimenting” with other people, just as Underhill intended to experiment on Amy, and looks forward, as the novel closes, to the release from his personality that death will bring him. It is not a stretch to see in this Amis’s view of the baby-boomer generation, with its proclivity for “experimental lifestyles” of all sorts that mainly take account only of the individual conducting the experiment (well-represented in the novel by the pseudo-radical priest Tom Rodney Sonnenschein). Indeed, God, as the young man, is seen in the novel as being a sort of experimenter Himself, which earns Him more than a whiff of Amis’s contempt.
Opening Line: “Fareham Harts half mile off A595, The Green Man, Milland 0043.”
Closing Line: “I put on my dinner jacket, swallowed a strong whiskey, and went downstairs to begin the evening round”
Quotes: “I imagined myself not noticing myself for the rest of my life, losing myself, not vainly struggling to lose myself, in poetry and sculpture and my job and other people, not womanizing, not drinking… I have often wondered since whether what made up my mind for me was not the unacceptability of the offer as such, whether we are not all so firmly attached, in all senses, to what we are that any radical change, however unarguably for the better, is bound to seem a kind of self-destruction. I shook my head.”
Rating: Very Good