How’s this for weird? Within the week after turning 60, my entirely capricious method of new book selections (authors for fiction, topics for non-fiction, whatever happens to be on FLOP’s flip-through rack of newbies) netted two new fictions about folks passing the magical 60 milestones.
Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils (Summit Books, $16.95) is the better of the two, although Jonathan Raban’s Foreign Land (Viking, $26.95) is delectable in its own right.
Maybe it’s because I grew up, literally, with Amis. His Lucky Jim (1954), about high-jinks at a provincial redbrick university, showed me the potential seriousness of the fun and games I was undergoing finishing a Ph.D. with course work at Michigan State, then still a ritually despised Cow College, before football tycoon Duffy Daugherty extra-pointed it into a place of higher learning.
Maybe it’s because Kingsley is 65, and so speaks from his aging heart, whilst Jonathan is a mere 45-year-old swotting up his insights by looking cannily at the aging hulks he encounters on his magical odysseys: Old Glory (1981) showed that Huck Finn was not the only persona who knew how to float down the Father of the Waters.
Amis’ novels got the Booker Prize last year, Brit lit’s Pulitzer. His old devils are a quintet of retired retreads in a place that reminds me of Swansea, where indeed Amis served his pre-commercial success apprenticeship as a lowly lit instructor. What starts the tale wagging is the return of a professional Welshman (and amateur cocksman) Alun Weaver from a career of flogging a Dylan Thomas clone on the telly.
His mates suspect (and he in his heart of heart agrees) that he’s been something of a fraud on the Welsh nationalism issue. As Time-Life Film’s educator advisor, I got to know poet / filmmaker John Ormond of BBC / Wales well enough to know that those who stayed home (Cardiff) and kept the Welsh fires burning resented the imperial “exploiters” at Bush House in London.
That’s the leitmotiv of the story—what’s authentic and what’s fraudulent in all the mini-nationalism of our balkanizing globe.
But the action is in the drinking—and the sly wenching that goes on amongst these far from retiring bedmates, as Alun seeks to light his old flames’ bottom burners, and his male mates rue the passage of years since they were active enough to pursue his beautiful wife Rhiannon.
I’m not surprised that AW does himself in via cardiac arrest before the curtain falls. His drinking bouts tired me out—not to think of (how did he manage?) the wenching. As the besotted quintet does its several pirouettes together and separately—sometimes male only, sometimes female only, sometimes cruelly coupled couples—Amis looks with rue on the post-Imperial Britain of South Wales, where a formica-topped tourism is replacing the coal mining and ship building that has left only ugly slag heaps and human hulks.
It’s bittersweet, all right—bitter about the failed hopes, sweet in the comic invention. His description of megaflabby Peter trying to dress is a marvel of fine observation. Them weren’t the days. And besides, they’re over but not done with, as pub crawlers ruminate about the past and look bleakly to a continuously diminishing future.
Here’s the beginning of a new genre—retirement fiction, inevitable given the lengthening of our lives.
Raban’s Foreign Land plays the new tune in another key. George Grey has been abroad for 40 of 60 years, taking a job bunkering ships in Aden after being demobbed from the Royal Navy. Montador, a mythical West African post-colonialist regime entering a decidedly ugly phase, is his last assignment.
He’s well-placed there, knows all the ruling parties, has a satisfying lover, but the darkening clouds of totalitarianism move him to move “home”—to Cornwall, where he has inherited a modest home from his cleric father.
Only a daughter, from whom a manipulating wife he married in a wartime romance has alienated him, is left from his original past. She is a feminist writer, something of a TV celebrity, who has decided at age 40 to have her first child.
The story line here is a skillful melding of flashback with his retirement fantasy of buying a sailboat and regaining the only satisfying freedom he remembers—his years at sea during the war. A faded pop singer tries to distract him from Cornwall, and his distant daughter beckons to him from London.
Sailing solo up the channel toward the Thames, he regains mastery—outwitting local toughs, thick harbor officialdom and perverse elements. If the imminent political storms in Montador fill him with fear, the tackiness of Welfare Britain engulfs him in loathing. The “White Man’s Burden” has no bowl of cherries abroad; the shriveling of Imperial Britain at home is a Slough of Despond.
Neither daughter nor pop singer will save him from what Yeats called “This filthy modern tide.” He flees to the North Atlantic, exultant in his mastery of a ship that may indeed be flawed by rot, but you can feel the winds and tack. On land, everything is a blur of compromise and complacency.
It looks like he’s heading back to Montador and the small certainties of Vera. The ending is as ambiguous as the foreign land he’s found he can’t come home to.
The retirement novel is a new memento mori. At 60, it’s too late for the lost dreams of youth; but there’s still energy aplenty left to win a few more modest victories from Fate.
I realize, retroactively, that the first Reynolds Price novel which I read last month, Kate Vaidan, fits this new genre as well.
Reprinted from Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large, February 3, 1988