The much–and deservedly–praised English writer Martin Amis, newly moved to Brookyln (his wife is American), offers his latest novel, Lionel ASBO: State of England. Although it’s nearly impossible to critique or argue the quality of Amis’ prose, and one delights in his splendid word choices and tight structures, this novel falls flat and is a real disappointment. And this reviewer is a hard-core Amis fan.
If you’ve ever been to a London Music Hall vaudeville show, and wondered what everyone find so hilarious, and you don’t, you’ll have a sense of what’s wrong with this novel, in many ways one long, protracted and never-ending one-line joke. Pairs of pit bulls pervade the lives of the characters and every chapter begins with a version of “Who Let The Dogs In”? That’s a clever riff on the quotes which often lead into chapters, but it is boring and adolescent in Amis’ case.
Pot-shotting the lower class white petty criminal ind seems a bit unworthy of Amis’ great intellect, but most of Lionel ASBO is a satire or parody of a man (Lionel) who, by happenstance, is rearing his nephew Desmond, whose mother died young. The point/counterpoint dialogue between the two men is occasionally witty but tiresomely repetitive . Lionel, who spends blocks of time in prison (which he enjoys both for its structure, regular meals, and the thinking time it provides him) is a chronic petty thief and recipient of stolen goods, stored in his bedroom in the high-rise slum apartment in which the two men live. His advise to Desmond boils down to a kind of semi-legal street smarts, an ongoing reminder never to be kind, always carry a knife and never be a wuss. Desmond, of course, is an idealist and the opposite of Lionel: all predictable.
When Lionel wins a fortune in a lottery jackpot, not only does a spending spree occur, but all the trappings of luxury are acquired, including a call girl named Threnody, who fancies herself a poetess. Lionel, of course, turns out to be hyper sensitive to the looks and sneers of the well-off in hotels and restaurants: also predictable. Some scenes which include a fancy dinner with Lionel and his low-end brothers are amusing; Desmond’s early sexual encounters with his own grandmother are almost funny tho oddly patronizing on the writer’s part.
That Lionel turns out to be no fol with his new money is a good plot device; his genuine affection for Desmond is newish territory for Amis, whose characters in this immediate family become gentler with each other, not a frequent Amis trait. Desmond and his eventual wife are also fond, in their way, of Lionel. But something profoundly patronizing seems to be afoot throughout this novel; that the lower class man of the streets has feelings is akin to the prostitute with the heart of gold. Amis can do better than this, and usually has.
The New York Times recently reported that Amis and his wife purchased a $2.5 million townhouse in Brooklyn. I wonder if Amis has become somewhat inured to or distant from the types of people about whom he writes in Lionel ASBO. If so, then he needs to move on to more fertile territory; if ASBO represents The State of England, the novel’s subtitle, then England to Amis is little more than satire or farce and the novel a literary version of the vaudeville act.
We are also informed that Amis was burnt out by the English literary scene. Although an increasingly large number of American writers are congregating in Brooklyn, and we hope that Amis finds the kind of community he seeks, we miss the bite and sarcasm of earlier Amis novels, such as Money and Success, written in the 80s, savage attacks on the Wall Street/City of London investment bankers of that greedy era; no one wrote as well about their greed and vulgarity than Amis.
As Oscar Wilde reminds us, in paraphrase, the cynic is often the failed idealist, and I suspect that Amis has walked a fine line betwen both poles in his writing. Unfortunabely, Lionel ASBo: State of England feels dated and unworthy of Amis’ brilliance and curmudgeonly wit.