THE OLD DEVILS won the Booker Prize for Kingsley Amis in 1986. The title refers to an ensemble of six couples, all of whom are in their sixties (as was Amis when he wrote the novel). It is set in South Wales, where five of the couples have lived their adult lives. (One motif of the novel is a gentle spoofing of Wales and the Welsh.) The action kicks off with the return to Wales of the sixth couple, the Weavers, from London. Alun Weaver is an inveterate womanizer and, off and on, he has been the paramour of two of the other wives, while Rhiannon Weaver had been the youthful heartthrob of two of the husbands. Their return releases a certain frisson amongst the old devils - making for something resembling a John Updike novel, only British, more genteel, and less sexually explicit.
Thus, a second motif has to do with the return to (or remembrance of) the flings and flames of youth. For most, this turns out to be a variation in the never-ending state of war - or, at best, state of misunderstanding and confusion - between the sexes. But the dominant theme of the novel is the slackening of age - such things as bowel movements, disintegrating teeth, increasing mass, the ordeal of dressing, and a haphazard memory. And virtually everyone - male or female - anesthetizes the onset of old age and its aches and pains with liberal, daily doses of alcohol.
None of the characters is heroic, but all are human. Amis exposes their foibles, follies, and infirmities, but he does so gently, compassionately, with wisdom and, always, with understated humor. Almost every page is marked with dry wit, such as this random example: "His second large Scotch and dry ginger was beginning to get to him and already he could turn his head without thinking it over first. Soon it might cease to be one of those days that made you sorry to be alive."
When I first read THE OLD DEVILS in 1987, I enjoyed it. Now I hesitate to use the word "enjoy". It hits a little too close to home, and I ruefully see myself a little more frequently than I would like. Thus, I think it safe to say that the novel will be most appreciated by those in the autumn of their lives. Unfortunately, as of this posting, the novel appears to be out of print. It may itself be middle-aged as a work of literature (it is not one of the immortal classics), but it doesn't deserve the fate of such an early demise. 4-1/2 stars.