Ginger, You're Barmy, David Lodge, MacGibbon and Kee, 1962, 215 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Conscription has made Jonathan Browne and Mike 'Ginger' Brady prisoners of the British Army. But reckless, impulsive Mike and pragmatic Jonathan adopt radically different attitudes to this. Then one day Mike goes too far, with consequences that threaten to overturn Jonathan's cultivated detachment from the idiocies of military life.
My plan for August was to read primarily books from the 1962 reading list of My Big Fat Reading Project. This was the book with which I began said marathon.
When I was formulating that Big Fat Project back in 2002 (have I really been working on this for 14 years already?) I consulted a 1998 book, The Reading List: Contemporary Fiction, a compilation of 110 authors who were both commercially and critically acclaimed at the time. That is how I learned about David Lodge, British novelist, professor, and critic.
Between 1960 and 2011, he published 15 novels and this one is his second. It is a bit better than his first (The Picturegoers.) I decided after finishing it, there is benefit in reading him because his novels give a glimpse into middle-class British life in the odd and boring decade that was the 1950s. It was a time that included the last gasps of the British Empire as well as the final years of the dominance of the aristocracy.
Jonathan, the main character, is relaying the incidents of his time in the National Service, a postwar development meant to keep the British military going during peacetime. All males were required to put in two years of training and busywork as soldiers.
Conscripted just after his college graduation, Jonathan ran into an acquaintance from school on the train to his first day of basic training. Mike carries the nickname Ginger because of his Irish red hair. They form a friendship just because when you are ripped out of your life by something as soul killing as the army, you've got to have a buddy.
Although Jonathan is a quiet, methodical and self-centered type, he becomes strangely devoted to the anti-authoritarian Ginger. However, he also manages to steal the guy's girlfriend and to figure out how to get around the inconveniences of National Service while Ginger butts up against the whole setup and lands in terrible trouble.
I have read plenty of books about American servicemen during this reading project and only a few about their British counterparts. While the United States was having a boom in the 1950s, England was still mostly in tatters from the war. Much of the story in Ginger, You're Barmy is spent on tales of army life with its drilling, regulations, shoddy quarters and inefficiency, and those parts are humorously done.
The misadventures of Jonathan, Ginger, and Pauline (the girlfriend) are fraught with guilt and the competition between the two men. Pauline is not religious but insists on refraining from intercourse until marriage, making for quaint scenes and occasionally more humor.
In the end, the dashed dreams, the settling for less than any of these characters hoped for, makes it a melancholy book. I didn't find it great, but David Lodge paints a realistic picture of life in that time and seems to be saying that no matter what people go through, character doesn't change much.
I wonder what he will do next.