Kingsley Amis spent his whole career not writing a successful follow up to his great first novel, ‘Lucky Jim’. I loved ‘Lucky Jim’ when I first read it several decades ago, and while the passage of years has eroded that affection somewhat, at the time it lead me to read as much Amis as I could get my hands on. That’s not to say Amis’s later novels were bad – the Booker prize for ‘The Old Devils’, as well as a couple of other shortlisting, attests to that. ‘The Green Man’ stood out at the time as something very different from Amis’ s usual portraits, so when the opportunity to revisit it came up I took it, wondering whether it would be as good, and as strange, as I remembered it?
I am glad to say it was. The Green Man of the title is an inn owned and managed, after a fashion, by Maurice Allington, a another thinly disguised Amis self-portrait. The inn dates back to the 14th century, and comes with the usual stories of hauntings and the occult. Strange things start to happen. Allington sees what we are lead to believe are ghosts, although the heroic scale of his alcoholism leaves open the distinct possibility that there are just hallucinations. His elderly father suffers a stroke, which if anything spurs Allington on to even greater peaks of drinking. Nothing seems to dent his self-destructive urges, and on the day of his father’s funeral he pursues an affair with his neighbour, and persuades her to have a ménage à trois with his wife. As with many novels written by middle aged men, his sexual allure is irrestistible, and this plan succeeds, to a point – the orgy happens, but he finds it hard to get involved, and eventually gives in and goes off and has another drink.
Refusing to believe they are simply hallucinations, Maurice somehow finds the time to investigate the hauntings. He uncovers the long lost diaries of Thomas Underhill, a local scholar and former owner of the inn, who he believes to be the identity of the ghost. These diaries reveal that Underhill used the supernatural to seduce and or ravish young girls from the village, and may be the explanation for the current events. The paranormal themes of the novel now take centre stage, as it becomes clear that the ghosts are not simply the product of Maurice’s drinking (even if he is unable persuade anyone else of their authenticity). Underhill emerges from the shadows and persuades Maurice to unearth his nearby grave, in which he finds an ancient silver figurine, which in turn leads to a rather clumsy scheme which will cause the death of Maurice’s teenage daughter. Maurice frustrates this plan at the last minute, in part due to an intervention by another supernatural figure who we are led to understand is a manifestation of God. If this sounds bizarre, it is, although Amis’s undoubted skills as a story teller allow him to carry it off.
The Green Man is traditionally portrayed as a benevolent figure, and Amis’ s idea to transform him into a sinister, lumbering killer is inspired. It is a mark of a confident writer that he can combine genres – the comedy of the drunken, lecherous innkeeper frozen out of his own orgy – with the supernatural Underhill narrative. Allington is ultimately a bit of a tragic albeit resilient figure, and as usual with Amis it is the underwritten women characters who one would like to have seen more of, rather than just playing bit parts as figures of sexual interest. Overall however I was pleased to find this novel still in print, despite Amis being very much an author no longer in vogue, and enjoyed the nostalgic re-read.