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The Gift of a Book, Part III

Kingsley Amis

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Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger is writing about Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. For the first two parts of the series, go here and here.

Billy Hale, who is Harry’s father-in-law, or future father-in-law, says, “Humankind, or at least American-kind, will lose its edge as we produce more and more pipsqueaks and everyone gets nice.” He’s saying this just after World War II, mind you. “Whole generations of pipsqueaks will be so f***ing nice you won’t be able to tell a man from a woman.”

I smile on thinking that Phil and Oprah were decades into the future. (Do people still know who Phil was, and is? Donahue. A very lucky guy, he married That Girl — i.e., Marlo Thomas.)

(I guess you wouldn’t be able to name a show “That Girl” these days. “That Woman”? Hang on, isn’t that what President Clinton said, about Monica?)

Billy Hale continues, “It will get worse and worse as people mistake nice for good. Hitler was nice, supposedly, most of the time. A lot of good that did. Luxury and prosperity breed pipsqueaks. A century from now the country won’t even be able to defend itself.”

Yow. Hope not true.

Listen to Mark — this is brutal. Maybe not untrue, but brutal (and fun).

. . . Park Avenue and its environs . . . were full of caked and powdered reptilian women and florid, panting men who lived to shop and eat, with muscles evolved mainly for approaching a maître d’, lifting a poodle, or carrying glistening packages.

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In this book is a sinister young man — a sinister trust-funder — who, when a boy, “used frogs for shuttlecocks.”

At another point, Mark talks about some people whose day world is very different from their night world: “[A]t night, like cats, they found their essence.”

Here is a gang leader — a Mafia capo: “Like so many of the short-fused and explosive, he was often charming, graceful, and captivating. The pit viper betrays how it will strike not in its movements, which are feints, but in its eyes.”

Catherine learns something about Harry, and he wonders whether she will accept him, braving the consequences. Listen to this:

She said nothing for a long time, and then she smiled so softly, so subtly, that it was barely perceptible. And in this barely perceptible smile was a courageous declaration as wide as the whole world.

About Harry — and we’re understandably wild about him — Mark tells us,

. . . he was one of those people from whose eyes it was possible to see that he might be thinking ten things as you were thinking one, and that his intellectual labor consisted not in generating an answer, something to say, a bon mot, but in choosing the best and most appropriate from an ever-proliferating stock of striking observations and ideas that came effortlessly to the fore.

Mark is one of those people too, I’m here to tell you.

Although I remember a marvelous story told to me by David Pryce-Jones. A woman approached Kingsley Amis in an eating establishment. Amis was just about the wittiest and quickest person alive. She said to him, something like, “Mr. Amis, I’ve read your latest book, and although I enjoyed it, I found it not up to your usual standard.”

Veins bulging, and gripping the table, Amis said, “F*** you!”

I love that the wittiest, quickest man alive could only resort to that readiest, most inviting of resorts.

At a party of Broadway types, we meet Rolvag, a lyricist, “who made fun of Nebraska, where he was born and where his mother and father still lived, and who would regret that he did and, each time that he did, feel sorrow and shame, and yet persist, sadly.”

Have you ever known anyone like this? I have known many — though I’m not sure they felt sorrow and shame. Maybe they did. I’ve never thought about it, really. I’ve just assumed that they got a kick out of knocking their roots.

More from the party: “Wary of embarrassment, wanting to shine, lonely, fiercely competitive, savagely ambitious, and as tense as pulled crossbows, they were the typical guests at a New York dinner party . . .”

Yup.

I love this — and have believed it for years, although I wouldn’t have thought to put it this way: “Irony is only a term for a cowardly mocking of someone else’s true conviction.”

This insight, and formulation, is completely Helprinesque.

Catherine says, “[M]y friends in the theater would think we were prudes.” Harry responds, “Your friends in the theater f*** like a bunch of rabbits playing musical chairs. They go from one person to another because no one is sufficient.”

Yup. Exactly.



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