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Review: Fiction: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

Lionel Asbo returns Martin Amis to the state-of-the-nation novel, and to his perpetual interest in satirising the life of the English underclass.

The eponymous anti-hero is a criminal thug living in a tower block in the loathsome London borough of Diston. As nasty, brutish and short as is expected of the author who created Little Keith (Dead Babies) and Keith Talent (London Fields), Lionel also has a 15-year-old mixed-race nephew and ward, Desmond, who is his opposite.

With the bad luck to be born with brains and a kind heart, Des also has a secret preference for sex with his grandmother, Grace, who is Lionel's mother but is still only 39.

Ever since 1978's Success, the magnetic poles of Amis's imagination have been privilege and its antithesis. Yet the comic struggle between Desmond and Lionel ("I despair of you sometimes, Des. Why aren't you out smashing windows?" the thug asks) promises a wider relevance.

Like Francis Gilbert's non-fiction book Yob Nation, it's about how low Britain has sunk by succumbing to the tabloids, Big Brother and "celebrities": its subtitle is "The State of England".

The literary model here is Hard Times, though Amis describes his characters' moral and cultural wasteland with a relish far removed from Dickensian compassion.

Lionel, whose hobbies are violence and pornography, inevitably hears reports of a teenager having sex with Grace. He murders one of Des's schoolfellows on suspicion, and then wins 50p short of £140m in the lottery.

So a queasy odyssey of high spending and low living begins, embodying all that is grotesque about instant fame and money -- especially once Lionel finds "true love" with a glamour model. Yet no amount of suits, cars, champagne or plasma TVs will make Lionel into a national treasure.

The trouble with Lionel Asbo is that this underworld is so easy to send up that reading it feels like Amis is shooting fish in a barrel.

There are plenty of people in Britain who look like Lionel and live like Lionel, but even Bill Sykes had more to him.

Dickens, like Amis, encountered a class very different from that he had been born into, and recoiled; he also tried to see into its heart, and find those to cherish. Amis sticks at emphasising how much effort Lionel has put into being as stupid as he is.

Lionel is a cartoon of a chav, from whom we learn nothing but a horrified despair. Meanwhile, Desmond's part in the novel is underdeveloped; his story's initial tension never realised, as it subsides into another paean to the innocence of baby girls -- even if the baby in question is incestuous.

A satirical novel needs archetypes, not clichés: Becky Sharp is real to us in a way that Lionel and the Keiths never are -- perhaps because, as readers, we are on her side. The "lotto lout" is just the kind of subject that would enthral any heir to Hogarth, yet for bitter wit to bite, it needs pathos.

Once again, the delight of re-encountering Amis's mordant prose falls away after an initial dazzling burst of promise.

Amanda Craig's most recent novel is Hearts and Minds (Abacus, £8.99).

Indo Review