THE FOLKS THAT LIVE ON THE HILL

By Kingsley Amis

Summit. 246 pp. $18.95

KINGSLEY AMIS'S comic novels have a reputation for misogyny. Like many men before him, Amis could doubtless always wriggle out of accusations of woman-hatred by insisting that the guilt lay with his male characters, not with himself. The fact remains that, for all the would-be-winning fogeyism of his narrators, the man's narratives leave a bitter taste on the tongue of any reader whose attitudes were hatched later than 1960. With its caring-sharing theme, Amis's latest offering, The Folks That Live on the Hill, could well represent an artist's response to just criticism; the misogyny is still there, but at least the old boy is trying.

Twice a divorcee, Harry Caldecote is a retired librarian of some eminence. His retirement should be a comfortable affair, divided among his house in one of London's more civilized districts, the bibulous privileges of a "gentleman's club" he frequents in the West End and occasional evenings of pleasantly unsurprising sex with Maureen, a married neighbor. Harry is not a typical Amis sybarite, however, since he has a tremendous sense of duty towards the predominantly female circle around him. Not only does he support his widowed sister, who has come to share his house, but he feels responsible for the welfare of one ex-wife's alcoholic niece and the other's lesbian daughter, not to mention his own feckless, vaguely criminal son and his feeble, failed-poet brother.

This would not be an Amis novel without a female hate-object, of course, and indeed there are no fewer than two: Desiree, the inappropriately named shrew with whom Harry had an ill-remembered fling before she married his brother, and Popsy, the aggressive lesbian now in, now out of love with Harry's ex-wife's daughter.

If one sets aside the author's misogyny as something chronic and, at his time of life, evidently beyond cure, The Folks That Live on the Hill does have its richly funny moments. There is also the abiding irony throughout that Harry, with his tidy librarian's mind, is forever underestimating the depths of feeling in those around him. He is prone to overlook the selfishness that underlies his sense of soi-disant responsibility and is not needed by others nearly as much as he needs them. (The pity is that his inflated idea of his own importance does not get quite the resounding deflation it deserves.)

Amis has always been a master at evoking the sheer messiness of ordinary lives, and here he combines that mastery with a surprising degree of sympathy in his portrayal of Fiona, the alcoholic. Having dropped out of the upmarket society that once made her welcome, she lives in a sordid council flat where she lures unsuspecting cab drivers and gas-board men like an English Rose version of Blanche DuBois. Touching also is the figure of Clare, Harry's widowed sister, who wryly suffers being turned into her chauvinist brother's housekeeper. Life with the devil she knows and her late husband's brute of a dog (which she loathes but pretends to adore) provides the easiest way of staving off her loneliness.

The problem with this novel is that the various family complications described take so long to establish that there is precious little room left for character development. Fiction dealing with retirement-age sex is absurdly rare, so it is maddening to find Amis skating over the surface of Harry's on/off affair with the accommodating Maureen. The spiky love between him and his sister similarly could have been explored far more deeply, whereas there are several chunks of the text, sketching in neighborhood colour, which an editor could have scratched out with none but beneficial effects. The plot is minimal -- this is a narrative more of situation than adventure -- and when all the loose ends are tied up, the rosily comedic glow which suffuses the closing chapter strikes one as less convincing than cosmetic. The novel's strongest moments offer a vision of the world as "a cheap, mean, messy, petty little place as well as one of horror and an unending sense of loss" -- not a vision that fits into a tidy comic structure.

Patrick Gale has written six novels, of which "Facing the Tank" and "Little Bits of Baby," are the latest to be published in this country. He lives in Cornwall, England.