Review: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
JONATHAN CAPE £18.99/£13.99
IN 1996, Martin Amis had a story called 'State of England' in The New Yorker, later to appear in Heavy Water and Other Stories.
It concerned a somewhat dysfunctional figure named Big Mal ("five feet nine in all directions") and his struggle to work out what was going on in his green and pleasant land where the fathers in the school of his son, Jet, have names like Manjeet, Nusrat, Paratosh.
Mal has moved out of home and in with a younger woman, Linzi -- except he's now pretty sure she's not younger, that she has doctored her passport. But abandoning the wife is a "classic situation" and, therefore, a second-hand situation. Mal, a deep thinker, finds himself with the thought, "If Adam had left Eve, and run off with a younger woman -- supposing he could find one -- he'd have been stepping into the entire unknown."
Amis has always been good on endearing -- slightly endearing -- yobs. There's another Mal in the 2003 novel Yellow Dog, this one five foot eight in all directions, who had worked for an ageing gangster named Joseph Andrews and now acts as bodyguard to "a troubled Wales striker" who's washed up at 25 with booze and stomped starlets and detox. Joseph Andrews, the old crook, also gets a mention in the 1996 short story. And a Mal plays a minor role in Lionel Asbo, where the yobbo of the title is a cruel and joyless psychopath with little about him that could be called endearing. For the true Amis- watcher, it all links up, and to cap it the subtitle of the new novel is State of England.
So, from his eyrie in Brooklyn, where he now lives, Amis is casting his eagle eye on the city he knows so well, specifically on the shabby borough of Diston, a place where The Morning Lark is the tabloid of choice and only those with pretensions to posh read The Daily Mirror. In a sense, Lionel Asbo is a satire on the world of the British tabloid, a target Amis took on hilariously in Yellow Dog -- because it is the tabloids that turn the egregious Lionel into a kind of hero.
Lionel, obese skinhead son of Grace who had seven children before she was 19 -- Cilla, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart, with our hero bringing up the rear -- lives on what passes for his wits, drinks gallons of Cobra lager and is proud master of two pit-bull terriers. A sporadic habitue of Wormwood scrubs, for such minor infringements as receiving stolen goods, he wins the lottery, a total of £140m or so. And his life changes. But he remains, emphatically, a yob.
Part one of this alarming and occasionally funny novel has as epigraph a few lines that might be considered blank verse, a drum roll of unease creating a portent of dark events:
'Who let the dogs in?
... This, we fear, is going to be the question.
Who let the dogs in?
The mantra is repeated in slightly differing forms at the beginning of parts two and three, maintaining the tense mood. We guess early on that the dogs in question are Lionel's two pit bulls, which formerly lived on the balcony of the high-rise flat Lionel shared with his nephew, Des. Since his good fortune, Lionel has bought a rural mansion with rolling acres and renamed it Wormwood Scrubs.
In the flat, Des, the nephew struggles to rise above the squalor of Diston, escapes from his job at The Lark and rises to the dizzy heights of a post as a reporter on The Mirror. And he marries Dawn, and they live in increasing delight with their baby daughter. But Dawn's idyll is marred by the fact that her father won't talk to her since she took up with Des: because he's black, in fact, of mixed race.
Des has a haunting memory of a walk with his long-dead mother, Cilla, when they came upon a comatose black man surrounded by cider bottles on a park bench.
She tries to wake the man for several minutes, then:
"She took his hand and walked off fast and Des stumbled along beside her with his head still veering wildly round ...
"'And I wanted to ask him something. I wanted to ask him his name'."
The seven-year-old Des starts to cry. And Cilla, just nineteen, tells him she only met the man once.
'You said it lasted a whole week.' he says.
It's the most poignant moment in a book laced with dark comedy and despair.
Lionel Asbo, which the publisher's blurb significantly refers to as a modern fairy tale, builds to a chilling climax, though purists might disdain the element of deus ex machina at the close. It may not be vintage Amis, this guided trip into dystopia, but it still beats most of the opposition.
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