Martin Amis has always struck me as a diabolically clever wag who uses wit to cover a deep and abiding scowl of sadness. The cockiness functions ever-brilliantly to mask his darkest dread — that of appearing earnest or, even more unspeakably, vulnerable. It’s a British thing.
With the publication of his new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, however, something new seems to be happening. Oh, don’t fret — the novelist has yet to lose his edge or relinquish some of the best-turned tricks in the business. Fact is, they’re in better working order (read: more wicked) than ever before. It’s just that the bad boy’s a granddad now, aged sixty-two, and stashed far from Britain in a quiet Brooklyn nest where no one’s likely to mock him for being too sensitive. He’s become mellow enough, perhaps brave enough, to let a little more real slip through.
And the best news is that the story of Lionel Asbo manages to do this without surrendering one jot of the purest Amis mordancy. A career delinquent who earned his first restraining order at age three (for ganging up on his four older brothers), Lionel merits the official acronym of ASBO (for Anti-Social Behavior Order) before attaining the “heavily weathered” age of twenty-one. He likes the acronym so well that he promptly adopts it as his last name. With his successive pairs of psychopathic pit bulls, upon whom he lavishes Tabasco-laced sirloins (“They not pets…they tools of me trade”), he conducts a business that murkily involves “the very hairiest end of debt collection.” As someone observes about him: “How restful it must be…to have no consciousness of others.”
Together with his fifteen-year-old nephew, Des, who cultivates the nasty habit of reading literature and aspiring to university (“I despair of you sometimes,” Lionel tells him. “it’s not healthy…do something useful. Steal a car”), he resides in the giddily dystopian London borough of Diston, about which Amis employs the “poetry of Chaos” to describe:
Each thing hostile
To every other thing: at every point
Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless
A fully fleshed character in its own right is Diston, “with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste.” Diston: the very name suggests a cross between dementia and tooth decay. This is where Des and Lionel live in perfect harmony: “Lionel the anti-dad, the counterfather. Lionel spoke; Des listened, and did otherwise.”
Now toss 140 million British pounds at them. That’s the number Lionel wins in the lottery. Promptly dubbed “The Lotto Lummox” (and worse) by a fickle, adoring press that’s never seemed sillier, Lionel takes to his good fortune like a thug to thuggery. Not only does he immediately spend twelve grand on socks. Not only does he fall into the habit of dousing tubs of caviar with ketchup to mask the taste and pouring Dom Perignon down his skivvies to cool himself off. He also sets himself up in the rowdiest rock star hotel on the planet, a place where there are “never fewer than three plasma TV sets on the bottom of the swimming pool” and the room phones boast a speed-dial button marked “companionship.”
For companionship of a different order, this is where Lionel takes his four big brothers out, to treat (and taunt) them with their very own filet mignons. “How would you like that cooked, sir?”
“Cooked?” said Lionel. “Just take its horns off, wipe its arse, and sling it on the plate. And bring all you jams and pickles and mustards…. Us against the world, eh, lads?”
So we can safely say the Amis energy is intact. As is the Amis gift for aperçus — has anyone better described a Beatles tune than having “the jaunty, wonky rhymes and chimes of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ “? A house that lets itself go is “like a tea trolley rattling down a hillside.” Hospitals smell of school dinners “as if pain, mortality, death, birth, all the great excruciations, subsisted on a diet of boiled carrots and semolina.”
The sheer verbiness of the verbs! (“Lionel sloped out for a smoke.”) The “frothy fricatives” of the dialogue! (Cockney has not sounded this fresh since Pygmalion.) Amis continues to have more dazzle than a stripper has spangles. And all of it tossed off with the (seemingly) effortless insolence of a rascally schoolboy, sixty-two going on sixteen.
There’s no formula for this sort of writing. It simply comes out of the same pot miracles do.
But I mentioned something new up his sleeve. Here’s what it is: Amis is owning up, in a new way, to the sadness and vulnerability. He’s tender about babies and dogs and even — could it be? — about sex. “He lay back and succumbed to an experiment — an experiment in gentleness. And the texture of her flesh to the touch, with that strange give in it, and the depth of all that lived life, now brought languidly to bear on him and his body.”
Never mind that he’s describing an act between the underage nephew and his grandmother. He is, after all, Martin Amis. But we’ll take such an “experiment in gentleness” wherever we can find it. And we find it increasingly: when Lionel embraces his nephew with less roughness than we imagined possible, when a woman stops trying to thump a drunken bum from his stupor and resorts to an unlikely new tack. ” ‘This sometimes works,’ she said — and intently, lingeringly, kissed his eyes.”
But mostly he’s gone acid-free on the subject of babies. It’s been four years since Amis became a grandfather (and eight months since the death of his best bloke Christopher Hitchens, to whom this book is dedicated), and the shrapnel has evidently taken its toll. The “most courageous” sound he’s ever heard, he reports, is the beating of Des’s unborn infant’s heart. Post birth, he reports without irony how she rubs her eyes with her knuckles, and on the subject of her smile he waxes positively gaga. “She smiled — irrefutably. You suddenly knew what an extraordinary thing a smile was, how kaleidoscopically it transformed the eyes.”
It’s not exactly that Amis has never had flare-ups of tenderness before, spasms of sentiment in his long history of comic novels. Just never like this. It marks the emergence of something that was worth waiting for — something we missed in all his works of brilliant cynicism without even knowing we missed it – the beating of something courageous.