A hilarious story underpinned by menacing beats about the English underclass.
The two fascinating voices of Martin Amis’s latest novel are an uncle and nephew from the English underclass. Desmond Pepperdine is a teen who hopes to improve himself, starting with punctuation, and his uncle Lionel is a cheerful career criminal.
Des — who lost his mother at a very young age and only glimpsed the man who might have been his biological father — has been brought up partly by his uncle. Lionel, who was first arrested at the age of three, shows, as we might expect, a rough understanding of parental affection.
Amis starts his story with a shocker. Des has slept with his grandmother, Grace. And in a semi-literate note to an agony aunt he expresses provisional remorse. Somehow we are immediately on his side and we know he’ll never be naughty again. After all, no one has taught the poor lad right from wrong, or where to put his apostrophes.
But Des’s problems will balloon into a Greek tragedy by the end of this novel. In his skewed Oedipal conflict, nemesis is not some disembodied force; it is Uncle Lionel, fearsome and always larger than Des remembers.
Lionel had his name legally changed to Lionel Asbo (for anti-social behaviour order) one of the many orders he has occasion to violate. In each hand he holds a leash with a snarling pit bull at the end of it, trained to lethal fury with Tabasco sauce. He is sometimes a randomly violent thug, but mostly a calculating murderer. Lionel is a bit obsessive about his mum and resents the fact that she continues to be sexually active at the ripe old age of 40. He spies on Grace and is furious when he finds out she has been bedding schoolboys.
A book to read out loud
It is a hilarious story, underpinned with a menacing beat from “Who let the dogs out?”. But what transforms it is Amis’s dance with language. His sentences make us roll familiar words around in our mouths and taste them with fresh wonder.
This book ought to be read out loud. Certainly it has us laughing out loud. Amis is a fan of Anthony Burgess, and the heavy-set Lionel, if he had been wittier and handsomer and a man of taste, might be our little friend Alex from A Clockwork Orange all grown up.
The other characters — Lionel’s brothers, the tabloid reporters, and the celebrity minders — are all drawn with the savage clarity and truth of a cartoon. Under the seeming chaos of riotous events (50 members of a wedding party arrested, for example), every scene and dialogue clicks neatly into its place in the story.
Des grows up and gets a girlfriend and, eventually, a baby daughter. Meanwhile, Lionel is in and out of prison and wins an obscene amount of money in a lottery.
The papers go wild with the story of the Lotto Lout and everything he does becomes news: his shahtoosh suit, his lobster dinner, his poet-girlfriend, and his eternally anti-social behaviour. He is the man everyone loves to hate. (Rather like Amis himself, actually.)
And yet he is endearing in his unerring detection of bullshit and ability to tick off the reporters, the portfolio planners, the PR agents, the women, and all the fawning and servile flies hovering around him.
Lionel carefully invests every pound of his fortune and makes sure he doesn’t help anyone with it. He hustles poor Grace into a nursing home in Scotland, where she slowly becomes demented and helpless.
And he manoeuvres himself back into a comfortable life in prison. You know where you are in prison, as he puts it, and you don’t have to worry about getting arrested.
Between the laughs, our stomachs churn in sympathy with Des. The boy is never quite sure how much Lionel knows, but he knows he will relentlessly be hunted down for his original sin.
Lionel Asbo: State of England; Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, Rs.550.