Literary envy runs rampant, but then out of steam. Richard Tull ekes out a living (no idea how!) as a book reviewer of stultifying biographies of third-rate long-buried English poets. He undermines the reputation of Gwyn Barry, his best friend. Untalented, but his smarmy utopian claptrap's shot him onto the bestseller list, while Tull seethes as a forgotten novelist editing for a vanity press. How Tull hires thugs to start to take down Barry's the plot.
It starts off astonishingly well in its telling. Insightful astronomical analogies, well-crafted metaphors, a promising satire of the publishing industry, and the inevitable trip to America that British intellectuals love to include in their comedic romps all feature. But, the novel settles into a morass of underdeveloped supporting characters, a lazy approach of Amis towards the tension that should be building as he takes you on for hundreds of pages, and a weariness by the end at the machinations Tull sets up within which to destroy Barry and his vapid wife. You wind up not caring about any characters.
For a novel so immersed in London, as with his ambitious "London Fields" (flawed as it was, I enjoyed that one more), you get a strong sense of its urban feel. Yet, domestically, many as Tull's woes may be, you barely get any sense of his wife and children as living beings. And, oddly, for all the send-ups of Barry's lamentable bestseller's rank, Amis can't be bothered to concoct actual references to the novel's own prose that's so often argued to be so awful.
Finally, Tull's not got that bad a life compared to most of his London neighbors. He might not be famous, but given he at least has a job in the publishing industry seems decent enough despite his lowly rank, given his wife's basically supporting him. Again, I have no idea how Tull gets enough income to live as he does in one of the world's most expensive cities doing as comparatively little work as he does! This may reflect the insularity of Amis, for all his knowledge of how everyday people live, as he's so entangled in what was apparently a roman-a-clef made into a thinly disguised work of fiction when this appeared. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-4-10. I have also reviewed "London Fields" and his Russian novel, "House of Games"--I recommend his non-fictional account of Stalinism under "Koba the Dread.")