One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis (1963)

‘I hate to say it, but you certainly are one fat Englishman. It was like fighting a grizzly bear.’ (p.75)

A short (170-page) comic novel which I had very mixed feelings about. It is laugh-out-loud funny every couple of pages, much funnier than I Like It Here or Take A Girl Like You, but the subject is appalling and quite frequently you feel Amis is going well out of his way to be offensive. A funny but uneasy read.

The fat Englishman

The ‘concept’ is simple: Roger Micheldene is a middle-aged English publisher. He is fat bordering on obese. He is a drunk and a glutton, stuffing his face and drinking himself insensible at every opportunity. And he is in America, somewhere in New England, a guest of the fictional Budweiser College (ho ho ho), where he loses no opportunity to:

  • insult his hosts
  • become painfully, offensively drunk
  • lecherously proposition almost every (married) woman he meets

his mind packed to overflowing with vitriolic abuse of America and his genial hosts, as well as casually insulting thoughts about Jews, blacks, gays and Asians.

There is a whole separate category for his insulting and manipulative attitude to women (an entire blog post could be devoted to the subject) who he approaches in a faux-military attitude, deploying a range of strategies and tactics all designed to avail himself of one thing only, amid infuriatingly casually-expressed outrageous sentiments.

Roger relatively seldom hit a woman unless he was really angry or at least very drunk, and already his anger had begun to fade into puzzlement… (p.127)

He is, in other words, a hideously recognisable caricature of a man, of an Englishman, of a xenophobic Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac, rude, racist and grotesquely sexist Englishman.

So this novel is scandalously funny at regular intervals – but just as often wince-inducingly embarrassing.

Plot

Fat drunk lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene attends a number of parties where he a) gets drunk b) really obviously eyes up married women. He is trying to arrange golden time with Helene Bang, the wife of a Danish linguist, Dr Ernst Bang, who he has already slept with (wildly improbably), but she puts him off making numerous excuses, ‘oh the kids are due back any moment’ etc etc. But – why does she see him at all? Completely smashed at the end of a party he vaguely remembers propositioning another woman who – equally improbably – has given him her address. Next day he travels to meet her and she (improbably) drives them with picnic blanket out to an isolated spot, where she lets him make love to her. As Amis would say – Why? She’s the one who comes out with the quote I use above, that he resembles a fat grizzly bear. Yuk.

The novel had opened at a party beside a swimming pool, where Roger expended great effort in a comic attempt to see Helene in a swimming costume. Here it is that he meets his nemesis, the young Jewish novelist Irving Macher, who observes him with sardonic detachment, even while Roger drunkenly insults him. Roger wangles an invitation to Helene and her husband’s house where he uses every opportunity to pester her with propositions.

A whole chapter is devoted to Roger trying to persuade Helene to have sex with him while her husband is out, when that fails then to arrange a date when they can have sex – all continually and comically interrupted by her insufferable little boy, Arthur. Later that evening Roger is at the drinks party preceding a Big Lecture he has been invited to give about the state of publishing (the idea of a drunk man’s lecture going badly wrong echoing the climax of Lucky Jim). Worse the wear for drink, Roger opens his briefcase only to find – his speech gone and replaced by a copy of Mad magazine! Furious, he drunkenly tells his hosts he is not going to speak; they try to persuade to give an informal talk, after all hundreds of guests have been invited, but he storms out and back to Helene’s house, where he drunkenly accuses her son Arthur of stealing his speech. Ernst, the husband, points out that the Mad magazine has a stamp from the college library. It wasn’t little Arthur. It must have been someone in the faculty pulling a practical joke.

Chapter 11 opens with Roger quoting Latin verse and anything else that comes to mind to distract him because he is having sex with Helene and wants to delay his ejaculation. Candid? Ground-breaking in 1965? Maybe. It’s certainly gross. They’ve barely finished when they hear a vehicle coming up the drive and a knock at the door – prompting traditional bedroom farce panic thinking it’s Ernst the husband – until they realise it’s only the postman delivering a package, addressed to Roger. When he opens it he discovers his speech and a covering note from Macher, warning that this is the first in a planned string of ‘Treatments’. Incensed, Roger throws Helene off and insists on ringing every number he can in order to track down the Dean of Budweiser College and report the malicious Macher, but to no avail.

There is another party, this time on a boat heading out to an island in a lake. A jazz band is playing aboard and it is packed with faculty and staff. Roger chats to a pretty student called Suzanne who tells him a bit more about Macher, how bored he gets, how he likes to stir up trouble, how he gets it from ‘those French writers’, Sartre and Laclos. Last year it was mescaline and pot. — Interesting insight into student/Bohemian values in the very early 1960s…

Then Suzanne is replaced by Mollie Atkins, the woman who drove Roger out to a picnic spot a few days previously and let him plook her. Now she takes him into a dark corner of the boat (it is night time), he is expecting a nice kiss and a grope but she bites him very hard on the shoulder, his howl of pain heard even over the wailing of the jazz band. Once the guests are disembarked on the island, Molly manoeuvres Roger into a dark copse and again bites him, making him really angry. Also angry because he had rejected the overtures of Suzanne on the boat – only to get bitten by this mad woman! And angry because he thinks he sees Helene watching them from a group of drinkers, thus not improving his chances with her. Damn.

In fact, it becomes plain that quite a few people are kissing people they shouldn’t in the dark island, sparsely illuminated only by the lights of the river boat. One of the faculty waves at him as he passes, encouraging him to have a good time, with your wife or someone’s wife. It dawns on the reader that Roger isn’t alone in his delinquency, that this is the much more liberated, free and easy America of John Updike’s early novels or John Cheever’s short stories. Although Roger is in a class of his own when it comes to disgusting grossness.

Roger crammed the last of the bread into his mouth and dunked it with so much whisky and water that a thin jet of it played from between his lips as he munched, but he craned his head forward and most of it missed his clothes. (p.124)

Somehow they all get back onto the boat, though Helene’s husband comes running up just as it’s leaving, has to take a running jump onto the boat’s deck, landing badly and breaking something in his foot. In various cars the guests make their way back to Strode Atkins’ house (husband of the Molly Atkins who seduced then bit him), everyone is drunk and behaving badly. Roger finds himself hauled out front of the house because of some disturbance: a man named Joe is slowly, systematically destroying his own sports car with a wheel iron, first one headlight, then the other headlight, then the windscreen, while his wife stands by screaming at him to stop and several other guys try to reason with him. Roger staggers back inside for more booze. The whole book is like this, one long drunken picaresque…

At a couple of these parties, one of the many guests had been a Father Colgate, an incredibly handsome young priest who speaks in high-minded clichés and instantly gets Roger’s back up. Surprisingly, Roger is himself a Catholic, though his prayers are mainly about getting women to agree to have sex with him. Now, at this car-smashing party, extremely drunk, he suddenly remembers something important. While he had been in bed with Helene at her place, the phone had rung (before the car coming up the drive proved to be the postman) and it had been Colgate, telling him his soul was in danger and he needed to make himself right with God. Roger had put the phone down on the bedside table when the postman knocked, taken time to open the package containing his missing lecture and read the note from Macher, become infuriated and started shouting, and made his way shouting back to the phone — to find Father Colgate still speaking his high-minded rot, at which Roger had slammed the receiver down on him.

Having made an arse of himself with women at this island party, and somehow feeling disturbed by Joe smashing up his car, Roger asks if Helene can drive him somewhere downtown and she improbably agrees. They get into the car and he is in the middle of giving her directions when someone speaks from the back seat and Roger nearly jumps out of his big fat skin. Not only is there someone there in the back, but it is his nemesis, Macher, with the result that they fence and spar all the way to the destination, Roger devoutly insulting him, Macher effortlessly parrying and infuriating Roger even more by telling him how much he respects him and enjoys his behaviour: it is so spontaneous.

Roger emerges drunkenly from Helene’s car and walks up the steps of a nice town house and begins banging on the door and shouting for the priest to come out, the good-for-nothing, lay slack-a-bed, Come out here Colgate! Eventually the door is opened by a tall black man who points out that the priest he’s looking for lives across the road. Roger shambles across the road and recommences the knocking and shouting on Father Colgate’s door. When the priest finally lets him in, he harangues him for a few minutes, and then drags him bodily over to a pretentious aquarium the Father has in the corner of a room and – forces Colgate’s face down first to touch the water, and then actually into the water.

Roger stirred the tank vaguely with C0lgate for a moment, then took him away and dropped him on to a sofa. Colgate coughed and gasped. ‘Good night, Father, and thank you. You’ve been a great help. Pray for me.’ (p.142)

Things move to a conclusion in the next chapter which opens with Roger having been phoned by the Danish linguist, Ernst, and gone to the latter’s house at his request. Ernst is upset because Helene has gone off for the weekend without telling him where (and Roger is upset because Helene had promised to spend a dirty weekend with him in New York. Damn).

Roger had not really been surprised. It just showed up the inherent snag about all dealings with women: that they involved women. (p.144)

It is a little disconcerting but fits with the permissive tone of the book and of the relaxed wife-swapping  milieu it depicts, that Ernst calmly accepts that Helene has affairs; he is only upset when he doesn’t know where she is, when she goes off without telling him. Who could she be with? In a flash, Roger replies: Macher. Ha ha, now he’ll get his revenge.

In fact, Roger now recalls through the alcoholic haze, Strode Atkins telling Helene she could have the keys to the Atkins’ New York apartment, ostensibly for her tryst with him, Roger. Now Roger rings Atkins, thinks up a pretext to get some keys himself, and sets off to surprise the two lovers!

However, even this ‘climax’ falls strangely flat. He locates the apartment, lets himself in, confirms a couple have slept there but are currently out, rifles all the cupboards and drinks everything alcoholic he can find. Waits and gets bored and recalls Helene saying something about jazz. So he calls a cab and asks it to take him to a jazz club.

There follows a sequence which feels as if it’s just been wedged into the novel for no very good reason except to use up Amis’s notes and impressions on visiting New York’s jazz clubs. These tend to be downstairs, hot and sweaty, and fronted by black men with pencil-thin moustaches wearing shades. All the musicians wear shades and it is very loud. Amis makes a sort of jazz joke by saying that one band in a club Roger visits is led by Daz O’Rooney, another in another club by John Colvoutie. Presumably these are parodies of the famous modern jazz virtuosos, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The reader is staggered that Amis might have seen Gillespie or Coltrane live, and a little saddened that the experience gives rise only to this half-cocked joke.

Having drawn a blank in his search, Roger heads back to the flat where he rifles through more drawers and discovers an old book which he recognises as a diary kept by the Victorian poet Swinburne, about his notorious sexual preferences (being whipped). At a few of the parties, among the chit-chat, people had mentioned rumours about someone purloining this from the library in England where it belongs. Roger realises its value and shoves it in his pocket. Just about then Macher and Helene arrive. There is a big argument but not that big, all things considered. Helene says she’ll walk out if they have a fight. Macher gives up and goes for a shower. When he returns Roger and Helene are still arguing. Roger insists it’s too late to catch a train back to New England and – in a comic climbdown – the others agree he can simply stay in the spare room, so he does. No fight, no sex. Damn.

The final chapter cuts to Roger aboard a cruise liner set to sail back to England (he hates flying) as Helene’s husband thanks him profusely for tracking her down and persuading her to return to him. Of course, none of this was Roger’s actual intention, but he is happy to take the credit, and as Ernst goes back to the quay and the boat pulls out, Roger feels quite happy with the sex he managed to have and his other florid adventures; he now has a plan to offer to publish Macher’s first novel and then kill it with lack of reviews and distribution ha ha – and he taps the copy of Swinburne in his pocket, knowing it will fetch a tidy sum from a suitably unscrupulous buyer. Not too bad, old boy, not too bad.


Amis’s Titles

Every novel of Amis’s I read confirms how deliberately chosen the titles are to be common-or-garden phrases and how accurately that reflects the common-or-garden, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the subject matter. Compare and contrast with the titles of, say, William Golding, who began his published career in the same year as Amis (1954) and whose titles are laden with symbolism and fraught with significance: Lord of The Flies, The Inheritors, The Spire. Amis has I Like it Here, I Want It Now, Ending Up, novels with such deliberately everyday, forgettable titles that quite a few of them have, in fact, been forgotten.


Amis tricks and techniques

… or something Deliberate bloody-mind vagueness, about names of people or places or household machines or anything, a permanent ‘whatever’, talk-to-the-hand attitude of solipsistic indifference.

A bird called outside, an ugly and unfamiliar sound. A blue jay, or one of the other local sorts they kept on about. (p.48)

Helene, her back to him, was busy making some spread or whip or paste stuff. (p.58)

Roger met an alternative image when the taxi got on to one of those throughway or turnpike things. (p.64)

This occurs in all Amis’s books and must have seemed a striking departure from the high-minded tradition that Writers write about Serious Themes and are Experts in Life. On the contrary, Amis’s novels portray ordinary people in a hectic hurry bombarded with the stimuli of modern life who can’t be expected to know all this bloody stuff.

Ending a paragraph with a question It doesn’t happen all that often but it is a real Amis characteristic to describe something incongruous and then end the paragraph with an exasperated ‘Why?’ Of the Halloween celebrations going on in the background one evening:

On either side of the road were houses festooned with multi-coloured lights and orange-coloured turnip ghosts. Now and again ragged groups of people or children could be seen cavorting about. What did they think they were celebrating? (p.64)

Making faces, choosing voices One of Lucky Jim’s distinguishing features was the ways its protagonist pulled funny faces (each of which had a special comic name) and mimicked all kinds of characters and accents, at wildly inappropriate moments. None of the subsequent novels pack in such manic comic energy, but his protagonists all do this thing of having an array of facial expressions and tones of voice which they artfully select and instal as appropriate – instead of just having expressions or just speaking. He is much, much more self-conscious than that. On meeting Molly Atkins sober:

The smile she gave him was cordial enough… He gave a much better smile back, with more eye-work and a quiet hello. (p.70)

‘Very good to see you,’ he said, packing sincerity in. (p.70)

When Helene’s husband, Ernst, asks Roger whether her abrupt disappearance is out of character:

‘Most emphatically I agree.’ Roger tried to put on the expression of a practiced and sincere fact-gatherer. (p.143)

It is not quite continual play-acting: more a continual awareness of ‘others’ (what Sartre called l’autrui) and calculating how to play to them, a continual self-conscious situating of oneself vis-a-vis l’autrui.

Military metaphors Amis was in the Army during the war (as we know from the three war stories in My Enemy’s Enemy) and one regular comic routine is to have his male protagonists think about generally trivial ways of handling mundane things in comically exaggerated military metaphors.

He took up an offensive position by the refrigerator. (p.56)

Making hurried excuses why Helene can’t visit his apartment:

Letting [women] enter one’s base of operations was to be avoided whenever possible. (p.78)

Of the pleasure steamer, when it reaches the party island:

The disembarkation was carried out efficiently and with the sense of common purpose characteristic of a task force which, though so far unopposed, expects to make first contact shortly. (p.124)

In its jokey invocation of military strategy it overlaps with the hero’s jokey deployment of voice and face as tactics in the never-ending war with other people, with the world at large.

Insults The mind of the ghastly hero is awash with inventive and often very funny, and sometimes just offensive, insults. Molly Atkins is the woman he propositioned at a party when he was so drunk that the next day he can’t remember what he said or what her name is or even what she looked like – a few days later he finally meets her:

Then they were face to face. At this range she looked a little better, but not much. A complexion that appeared to have been left out in a violent hailstorm for about ten years was her most signal drawback. (p.70)

To a woman who tactlessly raised the subject of Roger’s own divorce:

‘Say no more,’ [he replied]. Or else stand by for a dose of grievous bodily harm (Roger thought to himself), you women’s-cultural-lunch-club-organising Saturday Review of Literature-reading substantial-inheritance-from-soft-drink-corporation-awaiting old-New-Hampshire-family-invoking Kennedy-loving just-wunnerful-labelling Yank bag. (p.23)

Reflecting on his enemy, Macher the young novelist:

Never call a Jew a Jew unless you can be sure of making him lose his temper. (p.86)

Of a Japanese student who talks with him:

… a girl of Oriental appearance who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye sockets as well as eyes.

To Father Colgate, down the phone:

Roger spoke three words into the mouthpiece, of which two were ‘the Pope’, and rang off hard. (p.116)

Sometimes funny, sometimes gross. If you are Jewish or Japanese or a woman, a couple of these ‘jokes’ might be enough to put you off Amis for life.

Anti-Americanism The influence of America, especially of its free and easy cultural exports, is something which hangs heavy on the minds of Keith Waterhouse, Amis, Lodge and Bradbury, prompting awe and a certain resentment in their characters in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Their characters begrudge American imports, the flashy films, the white goods, the brainless advertising, the loud rock’n’roll ‘music’ etc. But only Amis takes the resentment to the extremes seen in this novel.

For sophomores or seniors or whatever the hell they were of Buddweiser College, Pa., they seemed not hopelessly barbarous. None of them was chewing gum or smoking a ten-cent cigar or wearing a raccoon coat or drinking Coca-Cola or eating a hamburger or sniffing cocaine or watching television or mugging anyone or, perforce, driving a Cadillac. (p.81)

In numerous other places he dislikes specific American qualities (their architecture, their design, their clothes, their accents, their attitudes) and in a way the entire novel is a calculated insult to America and its genial, affluent hospitality. Of course, the central character being pilloried is an English man – and lots of English qualities, including his pointless snobbery, his affected speech, his revolting habits (taking large amounts of snuff and then picking his nose in company) are relentlessly savaged – but despite his grossness, being so intimately inside his head makes it hard not to sympathise a little with the horrible monster, especially when he is – despite everything – very funny. 

But I wonder if the overall contempt for America, and the specifically anti-American comments which litter the text, permanently damaged his reputation in the States.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

PS LS Caton

On page 159, while rifling through the drawers in Atkins’ New York apartment, beside the Swinburne Roger stumbles across a letter from one ‘L.S Caton’ asking a publisher if he would consider his book about South America. Now this is the same L.S.Caton who promised Lucky Jim Dixon he’d publish his academic paper in a new journal, but then fled the country, the journal collapsed, along with Jim’s reputation, and Caton was rumoured to have decamped to South America. His name subsequently crops up in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Standish’s school in Take A Girl Like You, and now in this novel as well. I hope he is mentioned in every Amis novel.

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