Despite the inapt “literary bad boy” label that continues to trail along behind Martin Amis like a disappointed autograph seeker, he has never been a shock novelist. Rather, he’s a comic-hyperbole man, forever pushing up into the thin air atop Mt. Absurdity.
Nor does Amis write state-of-England novels—so the subtitle of this latest one is both surprising and enticing. Amis has spent a large portion of the last decade writing, with great moral seriousness, about Islamism and the Gulag, and his last comic novel (The Pregnant Widow) was uncharacteristically personal and soul-searching, a sobering critique of the unforeseen consequences of the sexual revolution.
In his sixties, could he be ready
to apply the same analytical rigor to his homeland as he has to Stalinism and jihad? Then Lionel Asbo begins. It’s about a 15-year-old boy who is having a sexual affair with his 39-year-old grandmother.
The list of ills plaguing contemporary England is long—but grandmotherly incest is not, at least as this issue went to press, on it. So. Fine. Amis is back to doing outrageous comedy, making farce from the filthiest and most inappropriate situations, as in his most scabrous novels—Dead Babies, Money, London Fields. Yet as the boy, Desmond Pepperdine, meets his soulmate, attends university, becomes a respectable journalist, and grows into a responsible young father, he can no longer be dismissed as a mere comic object like Amis’s most memorable antiheroes, Keith Talent (London Fields) and John Self (Money). The laughter gradually dwindles. This supposed return to comic form is less unified of purpose than Amis’s best work.
Desmond’s foil is the more Amisian title figure, a lifelong criminal who brags that he stole cars as a toddler. Aged 3 and 2 days (Amis solemnly informs us), Lionel was issued his first Restraining Directive: “A childish interest in cruelty to animals was perhaps only to be expected, but Lionel went further, and one night made a serious attempt to torch a pet shop.”
The acronym ASBO stands for “anti-social behavior ordinance,” a quaint, daft project of Tony Blair’s late Labour government that simultaneously defined deviancy up and down. The ASBO became a way of administering the feeblest possible tap on the wrist for minor crimes, such as making graffiti or urinating in public, and yet also a way of registering official disapproval for general rudeness.
The ASBO died a much-ridiculed death under David Cameron’s Tory/Liberal government after it became associated with such cases as that of an 88-year-old man who was issued one informing him that he was not to be sarcastic to his neighbors. Meanwhile, accomplished young frighteners collected ASBOs with impunity, treating them as slightly less burdensome than a stern lecture from a -headmaster. In the grim gray warehouses of public housing, an ASBO became a badge of honor.
So Lionel Pepperdine, Desmond’s 21-year-old uncle, changes his surname to Asbo. A happily antisocial life beckons until, during one of his many prison stays, Lionel learns that he has won £140 million in the lottery. Now that Lionel is no longer socioeconomically deprived, can he become a true gentleman?
To hint that things might take a Dickensian turn—think Great Expectations with paparazzi—there are wry little references to the Victorian master (whose sentimentality and earnestness mark him as a seeming ideological foe to Amis). For instance, Desmond, who is effectively an orphan (his mother is dead and he never knew his father, so he is raised by Lionel), attends a school called Squeers Free, which is dubbed “the worst in England.”
But anyone who knows Amis knows that he could never lower himself to the cliché that character is a mere plaything of circumstance. Lionel Asbo would simply laugh at (and leverage) such efforts at “understanding” as Cameron’s notorious “hug a hoodie” speech. “What was the matter with him?” Desmond wonders, deciding that his uncle “gave being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.” Amis suggests that the sensationalist press, which immediately dubs Asbo the “Lotto Lout,” has a superior understanding of depravity as a choice, and some of the most hilarious sections of the novel diagram the clash of Lionel’s ridiculous wealth with his equally ludicrous (at least in the world of comic fiction) lack of morality.
Career criminals do exist, yet Amis is content to remain at a distance and open fire with comic riffs. At the same time, he develops a lot of fondness for Desmond, and even some for Lionel, who earns sympathy in the book’s funniest scene when he decides it would be splendid to be seen wasting a fortune on drinks and dinner, but is soundly defeated by his own lack of education in the ways of lobster consumption.
[Lionel] went back inside to confront the scarlet fortress of the crustacean. . . . There were two skewers (one with a curved tip) and a nutcracker. He picked up the gangly device: like the bottom half of a chorus girl made of steel. . . . [T]he key moment came ten minutes later, when he threw down his weapons and reached for the enemy with his bare hands.
It’s a scene right out of London Fields, in which Keith Talent undergoes similar torment when challenging a restaurant to make a curry so hot he can’t eat it. But Lionel Asbo is building to a genuinely unnerving scene that negates Lionel’s attempted development and is (unlike the lightly handled incest at the beginning) painted in tones of suspense, and even horror, rather than silliness.
A sick joke can be funny, but only if it doesn’t invite or allow too much genuine feeling for its characters. Lionel Asbo is an uneasy, and at times unsatisfying, mix: too outrageous to be taken in earnest, but also too human to be purely comic.
Kyle Smith is a movie critic for the New York Post.