Metaphors and details are inserted so deftly that one scarcely notices how they push the action along. "Fury flared up in his mind like forgotten toast under a grill." A fellow lodger of Dixon's is described as employing a new pipe around which to train his personality "like a creeper up a trellis." A bellowing bandleader sounds like "an ogre at the onset of aphasia." The hideous Welches, at a musical recital, serve "coffee and cakes, intended to replace an evening meal." By these and further hints we build up a picture of Amis's attitude at the time, his genius for provincial and small-scale subversion.
Like the burned sheets and scorched but nonetheless "valuable-looking" rug that confront Jim in his nadir of hung-over disgrace at the Welches', the threadbare phrase "Angry Young Man" doesn't quite cover it. Dixon's rebellion arises from two simple elements of the servile condition: "real, over-mastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred." There are one or two political hints. Margaret turns out to sing for a local Conservative club, and Jim's first quarrel with Bertrand concerns the non-virtues of the rich. Thinking about his laughable scholarly project on medieval shipbuilding techniques, he reflects,
Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-Shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.
And Mrs. Welch is represented as hostile to the welfare state. It's odd, and useful, to remember that when he was writing Lucky Jim, Amis was not yet completely through with the Communist Party. Yet one sees also the first symptoms of his famous turn toward the conservative world view. He shows a fine disdain for the new college system, where, as one of his more sympathetic characters puts it, "All right, we'll lower the pass mark to twenty percent and give you the quantity you want, but for God's sake don't start complaining in two years' time that your schools are full of teachers who couldn't pass the General Certificate themselves, let alone teach anyone else to pass it."
I claim to be the first reader to notice that there are a number of suggestive correlations between Lucky Jim and George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Jim Dixon and Gordon Comstock both have jobs they hate, and authorities to whom they must truckle. They are both oppressed by sterile and burdensome chunks of "work in progress." They both measure the days in cigarettes, often smoking one reserved for sometime next week. They both attack alcohol without compunction when given the chance, or the spare change, and both register penitential hangovers. They both live in grim furnished lodgings for bachelors. They both suffer from difficulties, or lucklessness, with women. Each has a rich patron capable of acting as a deus ex machina. Moreover, the prettiest girl in Dixon's class (she is of course the partner of the self-assured Michie) is named Eileen O'Shaughnessy, as was Orwell's first wife. So it is perhaps possible to "locate" Lucky Jim in a tradition of English underdog writing, just as it was later plausible to "situate" it along with the work of John Osborne, John Wain, and other authors of postwar England. The difference, it is scarcely necessary to emphasize, is that Lucky Jim is wildly and anarchically funny, and that Dixon, so far from lapsing into anomie, is capable of seizing opportunity when it comes and making, literally, the best of it.