Roger Micheldene is fat, drunk, lusty, British, and he is in the United States. But that would be to simplify Roger. He is a visiting publisher at Pennsylvania’s Budweiser University. He is somewhat well-dressed. He is also hypersensitive to criticism and rejection, introspectively self-absorbed, palpably insecure, unable to identify or own hurting someone’s feelings, and leads a black cloud of negative emotion and hostility, even describing himself as “distinguished in anger.” However, like all narcissists, whether grandiose or vulnerable, he is the only one that does not truly know it, and, most of all, the blame lies always with others.
Mollie Atkins, cringe-worthy anglophile, serial adulterer, and soon-to-be budget-mistress to Roger, asks Roger, during the first minute of their first picnic together, “Which (food) [he] would like to try first.” Roger: “I think I’ll start with some of that,” pointing at Mrs. Atkins. And, whilst the very next line in “He had some of that” reeks of humor stinking of Amis, the following describing Mollie’s fruits as “well matured but showing no untoward signs of age and with the customer’s satisfaction borne very much in mind,” though tickling and telling enough, smacks one of a strangely self-centered detachedness, his immediate post-copulation thoughts being those of her age and the customer’s satisfaction. The sinister abdominal workout continues, as one honks through Roger’s description of Mollie’s unattractively intimate utterings and his deadpan espying of a tortoise under a fern that had been watching the sin unfold in real-time. Yet, we are a trifle shaken by the dialogue directly thereafter, wherein he describes Mollie as disturbing “his own sensations.” And, whenever the British literary liaison is bested in vocabulary distinction by a cheating Pennsylvania bumpkin, a scene of some psychological concern commences. Roger uses the word tortoise whenever turtle is called for, and, whenever Mollie catches him on this, Roger “brooded for a moment…He was dissatisfied with the tortoise situation…it had put him down a couple of points conversationally and this must be redressed at once. ‘How’s my old friend Strode?’” In addition to the odd habit of seeing conversation as a points-game, Roger decides to mention the name of Mollie’s apparently dastardly husband for a number of hurtful reasons, chief of those being “Worsted over the tortoises.” Moreover, Roger uses the word “Egotist” to describe Strode, which is fitting, as narcissists are always quite adept at finding narcissistic traits in those other than themselves.
Without much delay are we given another rather indicative scenario. A campus debate develops spontaneously between Father Colgate, a handsome, young, gentle Catholic priest, and Roger. What started as a conversation becomes one of those odd campus showdowns between religious figure and disbeliever. Despite one’s thoughts on the cosmos and their order, Roger’s motivations during interaction are worthy of some attention, starting perhaps with the fact that he “wanted some sort of audience for what he was preparing to tell Father Colgate. One of their number, a blonde girl wearing a man’s shirt but in all other visible respects unmanly to the point of outright effeminacy, was looking at him. These Yank college girls were at it all the time, one heard.” Why would an audience be necessary for what is presently a private conversation? Additionally, why should a blonde Yank girl in a man’s shirt who was potentially at it all the time be an important consideration of the proceedings? Furthermore, why should she be the chief focus of the proceedings? “He must concentrate on showing this blonde…how marvelous he was at dealing with chaps like Father Colgate.” After the churchman had delineated his way through forethought, responsibility, and reason, Roger “said fast and loud: ‘I honestly don’t know which staggers me more, Father, your affection for the obvious or your half-baked humanitarianism.’” And, whenever Roger is momentarily impeded by the young, talented visiting novelist on campus, Irving Macher, Roger feels that he must now “engineer the punishment of Macher for his interruption,” for taking him away from his loyal herd of college disciples, “including the girl in the shirt.” A significant instance of shallow, self-revolving behavior, not to mention a preoccupation with being admired and praised by others, the main representative of those being the blonde, someone much younger than he, someone highly impressionable, someone whom Roger can control and manipulate.
And this instance of attempting to exploit Youth is not singular. Indeed Roger finds great irritation in losing a game of Scrabble to the seven-year-old genius child of the aptly named Dr. Ernst Bang, the husband of Helene Bang, Roger’s supreme lust. Roger goes as far as knocking over the Scrabble board in a way that attempts to convey an accident, whereupon he accuses the child of cheating. It was this same child whom Roger attempts to blame for plotting Roger’s downfall. Whenever all is resolved, however, and the child is free from suspicion, Ernst and Helene laugh a gleeful mirth, the kind of gleeful mirth that expects warm participation on the part of the laughee. Instead, Roger can hardly keep his narcissistic rage contained: “‘The laugh’s certainly on me,’ Roger said, keeping his mouth expanded and producing an aspirated grunt every half second or so.”
With regard to Helene, Roger’s main sexual fixation of the novel, his general sentiment can be summarized rather succinctly:
“Whether or not his motives about women were obscure he did not think they were. A man’s sexual aim, he had often said to himself, is to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature that is the opposite of these; to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal. But it seemed a good moment to keep quiet about that.”
This sentiment can be still better understood, whenever taking his private calculations as regards Helene to heart. He oft describes his pursuit of her in quantified terms, one example thereof’s being “…a masterful feat of conscious policy, all of it successfully directed at getting her to come away with him in a week’s time…chances at about sixty to forty in his favour.”
Roger, in a scene during which a notoriously promiscuous wench asks him whether or not people should be kinder to others who have relationship problems with the opposite sex, even using the phrase “our position,” Roger’s ego is assailed by suggesting the problem to be in the plural. Roger then jettisons all consideration for the cookie and, after “[taking] a deep breath to insure rapidity of fire,” instead locks, loads, and delivers accordingly:
“I fail to see any similarity in our positions. I have, fortunately for you, been taking almost no notice of your nonsense. But considering your time of life I would advise you to conduct yourself with a little more dignity. Most men don’t enjoy drunken women after a certain age making certain passes at them. You have a perfectly good husband. I suggest that you pay a little more attention to him.”
Like all seasoned narcissists, Roger projects his insecurity upon this, albeit not entirely admirable, woman. It is nevertheless striking how much Roger truly desires to hurt people with what he says, and what he says being, with the names and situations changed, really just descriptions of himself.
The novel’s religious meditations are frequent and strong. In general, Roger has it the wrong way around: praying to sleep with another man’s wife, endeavoring to fist-fight priests, even attempting to gaslight God himself, who, being the inventor of the thing, likely hasn’t fallen for Roger’s charms. Although Roger arguably holds his own amongst some of the most despicable characters in literature, his story is redeemed by the call to change. Father Colgate tells Roger, and therefore the reader, how these symptoms are
“…infallibly the signs of a soul at variance with God. You, my son, are very gravely disturbed. You are in acute spiritual pain…I detected this from your very violent and distraught words to me back at the fraternity house and I obtained the clearest possible confirmation from the way you behaved a moment ago. A man doesn’t act like a child unless his soul is hurting him.”
Roger: “I’m not your son, you dog-collared buffoon…now unless you want to be martyred in the next five seconds you get out of my way.”
At just over 161 pages, One Fat Englishman, written in 1963 by the always witty ambassador to bad behavior, Kingsley Amis, flickers by with the speed and conscientiousness of a character-study. Whilst at first a novel merely unsettling, irritating, and even in nihilistic in scope, clarity reigns upon its conclusion; the redeeming factor to this novel is the call of transcendence that Amis offers in his demonizing Roger’s evil ways, indeed serving very much as something of a spiritual autobiography that led to Amis’s own retreat away from a delusional hedonism and accompanying convoluted nihilism to a life of, though ever satirically snappish, conservatively mannered contemplation.