The Old Devils

November 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis

I was just reading a Huffington Post column about The National Book award, which also mentions the scandalous Publisher’s Weekly “best books of 2009” list that includes no women writers. I can’t comment on that, not having read many new books this year, and none of the winners. But the column goes on to revisit past award missteps, including Kingley Amis’s The Old Devils having been chosen over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale bored me and I never finished it; The Old Devils is a great book. The characters are a bunch of aging Welsh alcoholics getting ready for a visit from an old friend who’s made it big in the literary world—a sort of modern Dylan Thomas, but less self-destructive. The ones left behind are the ones falling apart.

The humor is dark and relentless; the depiction of drinking is enough to make you weep with laughter. The men drink gin and whisky in the pub, while the women drink white wine at home (all day). Everyone smokes. The horrors of aging and the horrors of hangovers blend in a way that makes more sense the older I get; I’ve long suspected hangovers are merely bulletins from the front.

Amis’s characters are right wing cranks with romantic underbellies, and he spares them nothing. You don’t have to think you could spend five minutes with one of these people in real life to adore them on the page. They’re hobbled and half deaf, forgetful and losing their teeth, selfish, resentful, envious, and deeply nostalgic for youth. They still have desire, and will behave foolishly for it, and they tell you more about dystopia—the dystopia of everyday life—than Atwood will ever know.

Kingsley Amis famously couldn’t finish any of his son’s books. I’ve liked some of Martin’s Amis’s stuff, but I have more patience than Kingsely. It’s always seemed to me that what the father couldn’t stomach was Amis fils’ pretentiousness. It’s not a killing pretentiousness—Martin Amis has a lot of virtues as a writer—but you can’t ignore it. And there’s nothing a K. Amis books skewers more viciously than pretentiousness.

Of course, being an alcoholic keeps you on the defensive your whole life, no matter how famous you become. When you’re prone to humiliating yourself any night of the week, only a gargantuan sense of humor and an ingrained resistance to human vanity can keep you going.


You do look a little ill.

But we can do something about that, now.

Can’t we.

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

Do you hear me.

You aren’t all alone.

And you could use some help today, packing in the
dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .

I was always waiting, always here.

Know anyone else who can say that.

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
harm, is not abject.”


Can we be leaving now.

We like bus trips, remember. Together

we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,

think of it.

I don’t have to be anywhere.

–Franz Wright


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