Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Perhaps Britain-weary Amis got fed up and cried 'uncle'
MARTIN Amis, the aging enfant terrible of British literature, has maintained that his recent move from London to Brooklyn was prompted by his American second wife.
But the Britain depicted in his latest novel, Lionel Asbo, may also explain what motivated the departure for the famously gentrified New York borough.
As the subtitle makes clear, the title character isn't just another in Amis's long series of colourful yobs, like Keith Talent in his 1989 masterpiece London Fields, but an embodiment of England.
Set in a fictional London district called Diston, which "on an international chart for life expectancy... would appear between Benin and Djibouti," Amis's novel explores the collapse of British civilization.
Given that Amis shot to fame with scathing satires of capitalism in his novels Success (1978) and Money (1984), that's a fascinating political transformation.
This relatively brief novel focuses on the relationship between a kind, precocious, mixed-race youth named Desmond Pepperdine and his uncle Lionel, who has legally changed his name to the acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order (a kind of restraining order levied in Britain).
A pitbull-training, lager-and-porn-consuming thug, Asbo is a caricature. But Amis insists that he's based on a ubiquitous British reality.
"In his outward appearance, Lionel was brutally generic -- the slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble," Amis writes.
"Out in the great world city, there were hundreds of thousands of young men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo."
The novel has a ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines quality to it. To illustrate the role of tabloids and trash television in Britain, Lionel eventually ends up living with a reality starlet/poet modelled after the real-life British starlet, Page 3 girl and novelist Katie Price.
It's world of inverted morals, in which Lionel disciplines his nephew for watching a Crimestoppers-style television show (violating the law against "finking") and dispenses avuncular advice to steer clear of girls and opt for the comforts of porn instead.
When Amis provides us with Lionel's world view, the novel is bleakly hilarious.
"You can't go far wrong with the porn," Lionel says. "It's like prison. You know where you are with the porn."
Two developments drive the plot: orphaned and lonely 15-year-old Desmond has been seduced by his 39-year-old grandmother -- thus setting up the risk that a horrified Lionel will murder him -- and Lionel, while in jail as a result of a brawl at a wedding, wins £140 million in the lottery.
In this regard, Amis appears to be thinking of the real-life "lotto lout" and ASBO-collector Michael Carroll, who won £9.7 million in 2002 and ended up broke and suicidal.
The non-elevating effect of wealth on Lionel's character seems to be Amis's response to the contention that the woes of the underclass are purely economic. With more money, Lionel is just able to be awful in a more colourful way.
Each of the novel's four sections is prefaced with the question "who let the dogs in?", a reference both to Lionel's anti-social pitbulls and the human pitbulls who make places like Diston unlivable.
Twenty years after Margaret Thatcher left British politics, most British writers still instinctively point to the poufy-haired grocer's daughter in answer to questions like Amis's.
But with his emphasis on early promiscuity, family breakdown and junk culture, Amis suggests answers that his colleagues from his youth at the left-wing New Statesman magazine will not appreciate.
Bob Armstrong is the author of the novel Dadolescence.
State of England
By Martin Amis
Knopf Canada, 256 pages, $30
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J9
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