Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
The Old Devils tells of Alun Weaver, who has chosen to retire from his successful television career in London as a kind of “professional Welshman” and third-rate poet and return after thirty years with his beautiful wife, Rhiannon, to South Wales. The novel explores over a span of a few months the effect of this return on their circle of old friends from university days.
The old devils—a group of Welsh married couples all in their sixties and seventies—are retired. They do little else than reminisce about lost opportunities and a grander Wales and grumble about slipping dentures, dietary restrictions, and dwindling physical energies while drinking steadily, ignoring the large role alcohol has played in the mental, physical, and spiritual decay about which they complain. The men, however, are not alone in their reverence for the bottle. At the same time, their spouses gather elsewhere, ostensibly to drink coffee but more often to consume bottle after bottle of wine, to chain-smoke, and to pursue conversations about their marriages, sex, and assorted other topics in an atmosphere reeking of alcohol fumes and stale cigarettes.
The physical ill health these cronies worry about extends to the spiritual health of their marriages. With one major exception, the women in this novel are not only plain, hard, sharp, critical, or cross but also lack any reasonable relationships with their husbands that would make significant communication possible. Only Alun and Rhiannon, married for thirty-four years, seem still to have an appetite for life and love as well as drink, and most of their misunderstandings lead only to teasing, not to disaster. Yet their arrival arouses conflict among their old friends.
The conflict comes in part because their return revives memories of various youthful liaisons and indiscretions, and also because the egotistical Alun immediately sets out to re-woo the three women with whom he had affairs in the old days. Alun plays at adultery as if it were an idle pastime: His casual tone, however, is a poor disguise for the emptiness and pain felt by his objects of attention, or by his wife, Rhiannon, who tolerates his philandering, or by the husbands, who either suspect it or know of it yet are resigned to doing nothing about it. Near the end of the story, Alun chokes on his whiskey and water and falls forward, dead of a stroke. Given his reputation, it is not surprising to find that there is no sadness over his death—only surprise, and a thought or two that are quickly brushed aside by the others as a minor inconvenience.
The Old Devils is about more than an aging present; it is also very much about the past and its impingements upon everyone. Many of the characters in The Old Devils are carrying scars from bitterness and regret because of something that happened in their lives long ago, something they hide carefully from the world but on which their conscious attention is fixed. Past choices weigh heavily on all of them. These old devils are bedeviled by worries and fears of all kinds that deepen their uncertainty about life and increase their preoccupation with the past. Indeed, Amis points out that one of the reasons old people make so many journeys into the past is to satisfy themselves that it is still there. Yet when that, too, is gone, what is left? In this novel, what remains is only the sense of lost happiness not to be regained, only the awareness of the failure of love, only the present and its temporary consolations of drink, companionship, music, and any other diversions that might arise, only a blind groping toward some insubstantial future. Neither human nor spiritual comfort bolsters the sagging lives and flagging souls of the characters.
As in earlier novels, Amis finds in the everyday concerns of his ordinary folk a larger symbolic meaning, which carries beyond the characters to indict a whole country. In this story, unemployment is high, people lead purposeless lives, and the culture is dying. Buses are always late. Businesses suffer from staff shortages. There is an obvious absence of trade and enterprise, mines are closed, docks are dead. A local chapel has been deconsecrated and turned into an arts center; another has been converted into a two-screen pornographic theater, two extremes that underline the uselessness of the spiritual and its transformation from the divine into the mundane. Thus, the novel examines an often debilitating process of moral and spiritual decay, a lessening of these people as human beings as life goes on and how their hopes have dimmed along with their physical and mental powers.
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