In the past I've been critical of Martin Amis wasting what talent he possesses. You may remember two forgettable novels, written as if his teeth hurt, "Yellow Dog" and "The Pregnant Widow," reviewed in this space.
Now comes "Lionel Asbo: State of England" and it is, mirabile dictu, more over–the–top satire from Amis; a critique from the bottom of what's wrong in England, which, in his view, is plenty.
Trouble is, even good satire pales quickly. Small portions served parsimoniously are best. "Lionel Asbo" isn't small-portioned. It is Dickens' "Great Expectations" slagged off and shagged to the 21st century, an unflinching look at England's state of decline. Even the jacket of the novel is tarted-up to look like a Fleet Street rag. If you're an Amis fan, "Lionel" is pure gold. If you're not, "Asbo" is dross.
Lionel, 21, is a thug who changes his name to "Asbo," the acronym of a law in England, whose full title is the "Anti-Social Behaviour Order." He is a career criminal, we're told, and who has almost a Ph.D. on questions of criminal law, allied with villainy and prison to fill out his vocational trinity.
Lionel's got a fond spot for his nephew, the orphaned Desmond Pepperdine, 15. Unknown to Lionel, Des has been seduced by Granny Grace, Lionel's 39-year–old mother, into having incestuous relations with her.
Early in the novel Lionel shows up at his mother's unexpectedly, not knowing about Des and his mother's sauciness. It is clear that Lionel would kill Des if he knew of the intimacies between nephew and his mother, and this secret is a baseline tension in the novel.
Des himself notes that Gran "was an early starter, and fell pregnant when she was 12, just like my M," he writes in a letter to a girlfriend. If he had a choice, Des would rather be reading a book. Like Pip in "Great Expectations," he has pretensions to becoming a gentleman.
Lionel criticizes Des for not feeding Tabasco sauce to his two psychopathic pit bulls, Joe and Jeff, "jewel-eyed hellhounds." They are part of his trade as he shakes people down to pay what they owe. The pit bulls pace, snarl and swivel all day in a narrow balcony off the kitchen of Gran's apartment.
At this point Lionel tells Des to "Go home, boy. Go home and watch some decent porn." So why did Des continue the liaison? Amis lets us in on the obvious. It is an adolescent's raging hormones: "But when she asked, he went as if magnetized. He went back – back to the free-fall pantomime of doom."
What happens next is unexpected. Lionel is serving another term in prison at the time. He thinks the lottery a "mug's game," yet wins $140 million in it, perhaps making his point. Unfamiliar with such good fortune, Lionel hires a public relations firm to deal with the fiscal fallout of his monied future. This is a Shavian ploy: The feckless man made to comport himself in a civilized way, like Eliza's father in "My Fair Lady."
As Des reflects, "Could it be possible? Could it be possible that Lionel Asbo, the great asocial, was in certain settings a social being?"
But Lionel is at least no stooge about money. He utters a wordy imprecation familiar to many after the financial meltdowns – like Barclays, J.P. Morgan, and the moral risk across the globe: "Yeah, and tomorrow it'll all disappear. The market's gone and wanked itself out, Des. The banks've sploshed it all away and they kipping on us now! Who can you trust?"
Not much happens to Asbo for the last hundred pages of the book. In and out of the clink, he enjoys kicking his money away in true barbarian fashion. Lionel puts his mum in an old age home. Des marries Dawn and they have a baby. Zzzzzz.
If this looks as if it isn't your read about England in a down time, A.N. Wilson has done a better job in presenting Britain's culture – or what passes for it – in his recent book, the last of a trilogy, "Our Times, The Age of Elizabeth II."
Wilson's is a scholarly, dark, and at times mordantly funny view of Britain's recent history. It begins with Elizabeth II's Coronation on June 2, 1953, and ends in 2008.
According to Wilson, Britain has lost its common memory, arguing that societies "... require shared mythologies, ideologies, folk memories, to help them cohere and to live through times of crisis."
Wilson's jeremiad is full of loss. He uses J.R.R. Tolkien's epic, "The Lord of the Rings," as a case in point. The novel, published in 1954-55, was considered "war literature." It touched upon the loss of many of Tolkien's friends in World War I. The novel adumbrated dark clouds building over Europe after World War II, emphasizing vanished civilizations and lost traditions. The comfortable world of the Hobbits disappeared.
Alternately, you might take a look at "England, England," by Julian Barnes, reviewed here in 1998. In this book, Barnes does a clever job of making England a theme park on the Isle of Wight, a bit like the recent Summer Olympics, I think.
In any case "Lionel Asbo" is a savage story of the debasement of a society: Internet porn, criminality and the sad story of what happens to people when they let slip their consciences and run amok.
Amis is very good at "amok" as he watches England decline from his home in Brooklyn.
Michael D. Langan is a ?frequent critic of current British writing for The News.
Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Martin Amis
Knopf255 pages, $25.95?