Let’s face it. Some books are just profoundly shit. Many people have the common sense to stop reading books they have identified as such and they will divert their attention to a different book instead – one that they might enjoy. For better or worse, I don’t do that. Once I’ve committed to a book, I will finish it and if it’s a shit book, I will empty the poisoned chalice until the last drop is gone.
The book that received this particular thumbs down from me this week is One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis. I bought my copy at my local library when I was still at secondary school – I suppose I should have remembered the adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ when I bought it, as the only reason it appealed to me was the drawing of a comically large man on the cover.
But the book collected dust on every bookshelf I had ever stored it on. I did so in my childhood home, as well as my student accommodation in Amsterdam and it was no different when I moved to the UK. Never did I read it as it appeared that I always had something better to read. Last week however, I decided this book that had languished unread on my shelves for nearly 20 years, should now receive some attention.
It wasn’t my best decision ever. Whereas some long novels are so good that you don’t want them to end, One Fat Englishman is very short (only 170 pages or so) but I craved for it to end since page 20. The story follows Roger Micheldene, the eponymous Fat Englishman, who works in the publishing industry. Roger quickly reveals himself to be an insufferable, adulterous, racist, misogynistic, child-hating snob who exclusively surrounds himself with people who are equally insufferable.
Being the patriot that he is, he never ceases to voice his disdain about the USA (which is the setting of the entire book) yet he cannot bear it if anyone jokes about Britain. Furthermore, it is obvious that Roger regards himself to belong to the crème de la crème of the world’s intelligentsia. Ironically, he does all of his thinking exclusively with his penis, as he relentlessly pursues a married woman throughout the novel and eventually gets her to sleep with him, only for Roger to take the moral high ground when the same woman runs off to New York with an equally nauseating man. (This description also functions as a full summary of the novel). If the book had been funny, I might have enjoyed it. Unfortunately for me, there was no comical material anywhere in the book.
The novel was written in 1963, but I was half-way in that I realised that the character Roger Micheldene foreshadows the Prime Minister the UK was doomed to get in 2019. Virtually every description of Roger’s character applies in similar measure to Boris Johnson, and in that sense One Fat Englishman serves as an unwelcome prophecy of the Britain we find ourselves in nearly 60 years later.
However, there is one redeeming factor that applies to both One Fat Englishman and Boris Johnson’s political career: eventually, it will end.