Amis’s anti-hero Lionel Asbo: violent seduction


October 4, 2012

Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Martin Amis, Knopf, $29.95

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

Witty. Profane. Excoriating. But possibly just a tad too long?

That’s my postcard review of Martin Amis’s new work of fiction, his 15th, written from his perch in Brooklyn, from which he does indeed have the long view on Britain. As ever, I derive readerly delight from Amis’s coruscating and corrosive view of society – in this case, London’s working class of Diston Town, a populace determined to either rise above or brandish a life of crime – and his relentless wordplay. But as I got to about page 175, I found myself wondering if, like so many satires (Amis says he’s being ironic) firmly embedded in the awfulness of now, Lionel Asbo would have much of a shelf-life, even with its dedication to Christopher Hitchens.

The novel proves Milton’s thesis in Paradise Lost: that evil is always far more entertaining than good. Lionel Asbo, self-named after the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a restraining directive occasioned by his tossing paving stones through car windshields at the advanced age of THREE, is the dark, roiling heart of Amis’s novel. Lionel’s life of constant crime is derailed by his lottery win: he becomes Lotto Lout Lionel and bespoils many a bespoke suit, posh hotel and rich woman. His nephew Desmond Pepperdine, only child of Lionel’s deceased sister Cilla, is intelligent and earnest; Des acquires a wife and baby daughter after he gets over boinking his Gran, but he cannot hold a torch to the ceaseless revenge-drama of his Uncle Li’s life.

Of course, Lionel (a yob-oik hybrid) lurches from the page as a larger-than-life caricature, but he’s one in which Amis has invested his love. The reader can never escape the threat of Lionel’s fisted face, his slab-like body, his ceaseless appetite for crime and sex, his truisms (Skirts not worth the trouble. You know where you are in prison.), his horrific abuse of his dogs . . . Lionel’s sweat and semen ooze from almost every page.

So: not a novel for the tender-hearted then. But a tour-de-force, even though Amis signals his ending from the very first epigram: Who let the dogs in? . . . This, we fear, is going to be the question.

Lynne Van Luven is the editor of Coastal Spectator

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