The Mating Season and Girl, 20 feel more like cultural artifacts from a bygone age; Shakespeare feels more contemporary than The Mating Season. Their humor doesn’t age well and has molded rather than matured and deepened. Reading them feels like watching an old sitcom. The Mating Season is the worse offender: who lets family get in the way of romantic entanglement, anyway? The problems seem quaint, as does their resolution.
Girl, 20 held up better, but I can see why it’s out of print in the U.S. (hence no link. I found a used hardcover first edition with numerous typos). Parts still shine, even if the specter of famous older men behaving badly and dating spectacularly younger women doesn’t seem surprising or even noteworthy anymore, if it ever did in the first place.
Tom Wolfe has similarly randy hunters in A Man in Full and The Bonfire of the Vanities; they’re also funnier books, even if Wolfe lacks the critical reputation Amis has. Their strong time and place means that they too might seem irrelevant, like Girl, 20, in another 20 years, but the older/younger sexual relationships are not central to the plot of either novel. Both also work with the idea that dating or marrying much younger women doesn’t elicit much more than yawns in the larger society these days. The dissipation of the social stigma around the phenomenon is part of what makes Girl, 20 seem like something from deep in history. I wonder if Less Than Zero and Story of my Life will share the same fate.
And yet Girl, 20 is just 35 years old, but that’s apparently long enough for Sylvia—the tart of the title—to lose her charms. The narrator, Yandell, is very much out of touch—a classical music critic in a pop-culture era— which is probably supposed to provide for some dramatic irony, but he is more an annoyance than anything else. There are parts with perfect pitch: “I got to my feet and looked round the room, which was furnished with a hi-fi set-up, a mahogany sideboard that had a marble top visible here and there among bottles, a science-fiction giant lily or two, some bloated china cats, and framed posters of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Mihn, a nude couple making love and other key figures of the time.” The whole doesn’t work despite the evidence of Amis’s technical skill as a writer.
It’s not easy to ascribe a cause to why Girl, 20 doesn’t work. I just don’t care nearly as much about Sir Roy Vandervane as I do about Von Humboldt Fleisher or Moses Herzog. Kingsley Amis is as good a writer as Bellow, but like Bellow he had his weaker books, and Girl, 20 is one of them.
Something on About Last Night inspired me to buy Girl, 20—perhaps this, or the several other references to Girl, 20—but I was disappointed; I’m still hoping The Dud Avocado turns out better, if for no other reason than because of the name.