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Likely Stories

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Monday, April 17, 2006 8:54 pm
Lucky Me
Posted by: Keir Graff

Between naps (mine) and diapers (his), I read Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1953)-obviously not to review it. When I really want to relax, character, setting, and plot come in second, third, and fourth to a more important consideration: language. I especially love the language of mid- and early-twentieth-century British writers and the dry, wry humor they often have.

(Stephen Potter‘s Gamesmanship is a perfect example.)

An avocational mixologist, my love of spirits and sprightly prose led me long ago to Amis’s drinks books (On Drink, 1972; Every Day Drinking, 1983; etc.), though I’d never read his novels. (I’ve read his son’s, but that’s a different cocktail.) Now I don’t want to read another one in case I’m disappointed. His comedy is as dry and potent as a 7-to-1 martini, and that’s two too many booze metaphors.

But though this sendup of provincial university life in post-World War II England makes some points that are very specific to its time, the story itself is timeless because of Jim Dixon-”Lucky Jim.” He’s grasping desperately for a position (lecturer) that he doesn’t really want, in a subject (medieval history) he doesn’t really care about. His fate is in the hands of the hilariously unfit Professor Welch, a man who makes David Brent look like an enlightened boss. The closest Dixon comes to self-defense, aside from prank calls and letters, is his habit of making grotesque faces when no one is looking-usually. He’s utterly unique and yet utterly recognizeable.

You could put Jim anywhere, but he does seem to fit better in academia. Why is that? It strikes me that there is a small but worthy genre in academic satire. (On my desk I have an unread copy of Bill James’s Making Stuff Up (2006)-and didn’t Robertson Davies work in this vein?) But what is the audience for these books? Insiders, mostly, because the nuances of battles for tenure are probably lost on those who chose not to climb the ivied walls. But if so, what’s their purpose-are they sanctioned roasts whose purpose is to prove that the ivory tower has a sense of humor? Or are they created by and for those who have legitimate gripes at the absurdities of academia? Or is it just professors writing what they know?

I don’t know how many people are reading this blog yet, but if anyone has any favorite academic satires-or theories on the above-please let me know.



6 Responses to “Lucky Me”
  1. Bill ott Says:

    My favorite academic satires: Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Michael Malone’s Foolscap. But there are so many others I’m not thinking of at the moment. Like the early volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, for example, the books that deal with Nick Jenkins’ Oxford years-but those are somehow beyond satire while still very, very funny.

    Bill Ott

  2. Keir Says:

    My friend Rob has recommended that I read Straight Man. Maybe it’s time for me to get off my duff and borrow his copy.

  3. Robert Says:

    Alleged friend Rob here. I love all Russo’s work, but the memory of Straight Man lingers most of all. The comedy’s so broad it’s like a Marx Brothers movie. It’s a silly, silly book, but deeply humane. Actually, White Noise is somewhat in the same vein, no? The animal pleasures of a good home and idiot friends and provincialism and the posture of intellectualism and pig-headed-yet-impotent machismo and a full ice box and the mellowness of middle age and a stubborn/terrific spouse and a deep understanding of the cosmic comedy of it all. All of this speaks to me. I don’t really envy the dudes 10 years younger than I am, and it’s these kinds of books that show me why. More and more, I walk down the street and just giggle at everyone. I believe I’ll borrow Amis when Keir’s done. -ROB

  4. Keir Says:

    Our General Manager Mary Frances Wilkens thought she remembered that Editor-at-Large Joanne Wilkinson had written a Read-alike on academic satires, and lo and behold, there it was. Way back in September 1, 1997 Booklist, the first issue to feature Read-alikes, Joanne and Bill had used a review of Stevie Davies’s Four Dreamers and Emily to recommend John L’Heureux’s Handmaid of Desire, Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, Michael Malone’s Foolscap, Jane Smiley’s Moo, and…wait for it…Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Booklist Online subscribers can read the full thing here (click here for a free 30-day trial).

  5. Mock Turtle Says:

    I love James Hynes’s books: The Lecturer’s Tale, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror … and of course Kings of Infinite Space (actually post-academic satire, as it chronicles the continuing adventures of Paul Trilby from one of the “three tales,” after he flees academe in the wake of that unfortunate business with his wife’s cat). I found them all not only hilarious, but wonderfully creepy.

  6. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Five Minutes a Day Says:

    [...] It’s written in a fun, semiformal, old-fashioned voice that I find very appealing. Chapter titles include: “Bedtime: Is Five-thirty Too Early?”; “Screaming: Is It Necessary?”; “Child Labor: Not Just for the Third World”; “‘Children’s Music’: Why?”; and so forth. I highly, highly recommend this as a gift for new parents. (I received two myself and I cherish both of them.) [...]

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