Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0224096201
As his proudly chosen surname might suggest, the leading character of Martin Amis’s latest novel is a chav who makes his fellow delinquents look positively effete. Lionel Asbo is the son of a mother who had her first child at the age of twelve, and by nineteen was presiding over a brood of seven children, all with different fathers of different ethnic stock. She also welcomed a series of other men into her bed, along with one or two schoolboys. Lionel was served with his first restraining directive when he was three, made a serious attempt as a toddler to torch a pet shop, was sleeping with his first girlfriend by ten, and as a young adult changed his name by deed poll from Lionel Pepperdine to Lionel Asbo. There is a case to be made that young Asbo did not have the most propitious start in life.
Regularly jailed for a string of offences from extortion to grievous bodily harm, Lionel lives in the mythical London district of Diston, which on an international chart of life expectancy can be found between Benin and Djibouti. As far as fertility rates go it ranks between Malawi and Yemen, with an average of six children per couple or single mother. It is an area notable for its “gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds, crippled forty-year-olds, demented fifty-year-olds, and non-existent sixty-year-olds”. The local hospital is the kind of place where they send you to the back of the queue if you’ve only got a machete in your head. This human wasteland is also the home of Lionel’s mixed-race, fifteen-year-old nephew Des, who is having an affair with his grandmother. Des is a student at Squeers Free school, which with its frequent police call-outs, truancies, expulsions and dismal GCSE results has the distinction of being the worst school in the country.
Yet Des, though raised by his “anti-dad and counterfather” Lionel, is no miscreant himself. On the contrary, much to Lionel’s disgust, he is striving despite the best efforts of Squeers Free to get himself an education, covertly visiting the public library, studying calligraphy, sociology and anthropology and raising his standards of literacy by reading The Sun rather than his uncle’s favoured Morning Lark. Lionel has done his best by the boy, introducing him to pornography at an early age and urging him with paternal solicitude to go out and break a few windows. He also tried to toughen the child up when he was a toddler. “You were always brushing up against me for a hug, like a cat,” he tells Des, “And I’d say, Get off, you little fairy. Get off, you little poof.” When Des gets his first job on the crime desk of a newspaper, Lionel bitterly accuses him of betraying his own class.
In a double narrative device, both men manage to escape from Diston. Des gets himself to university, married a middle class woman and finds a respectable outlet for his inside knowledge of the underworld by swinging himself a job as a crime reporter on the Daily Mirror. Lionel’s route out of sticking broken beer bottles into people’s faces is probably the only one open to him. He wins a hundred and forty million on the lottery and sets himself up in a country mansion he nostalgically names Wormwood Scrubs. Never the most scrupulous accountant, he get through nine million pounds in three weeks and acquires a celebrity girlfriend called “Threnody”, whose name is placed in sardonic quotation marks throughout the novel.
Yet Lionel does not allow fame and fortune to sever him from his roots. On the contrary, in a touching act of loyalty to his upbringing, he continues to damage other people’s faces and break up the furniture, though now in a series of posh clubs, grand hotels and high class restaurants. The London hotel he favours, one frequented by rock starts, bratpack actors, temperamental fashion models and women-beating Premiership footballers, deploys its own medical teams to cope with pharmaceutical misadventures and the more serious self-mutilations. Always mindful of its guests’ needs, it has balconies from which the more suicidal of them can leap, and places plastic razors in each of its suites.
Money does not improve Lionel’s moral character. Called upon to give a speech at a wedding party of fellow villains, he concludes his address with an exotic description of the sexual antics he has just observed the bride engaging in with the waiters, a rhetorical flourish which results in a celebrated “nuptial rumble” that puts ninety of the guests behind bars. Fearful that his mother’s growing dementia might lead to her making some awkward revelations about his criminal career, he has moved to a deserted nursing home at the northern tip of Scotland.
The whole of this scabrous critique is Amis at his finest and funniest. As usual, there are some dodgy metaphors and patches of overwriting, but the early sections of the book are highly accomplished. Somewhere midway through, however, the novel begins to falter, and for an intriguing reason. The first half of the work – hardboiled, brutally satirical, hilarious but carefully impassive – is cast in much the same mould as Dead Babies or Money. Like Evelyn Waugh, Amis knows how to sharpen his comedy by a deadpan delivery. Like Waugh too, he is adept at pressing the narrative towards the monstrous, surreal and grotesque while remaining just on this side of the border between realism and fantasy. It is a vein of satire to which the faintest whiff of genuine human sentiment or moral attitudinising is fatal; and the problem with the second part of the book is that it teeters on the brink of straight emotion, which has never been Amis’s forte.
This is partly because the relationship between Des and his partner, Dawn, comes strongly to the fore as a positive counterweight to the showbiz posturing of Lionel and “Threnody”. Des’s trek from council estate to national newspaper is evidence that Diston can be transcended, thus qualifying a portrait of the lumpenproletariat that would otherwise be devastatingly negative. The novel needs to have its fun at their expense without insinuating any odious middle class condescension. Des, Dawn and their baby girl are accordingly treated with tenderness, which in Amis’s fiction is usually a mistake. He handles such emotional states as poorly as his father, writing sentences like “She was looking at him … not uncritically, but tenderly, forgivingly, and above all knowingly”, which has nothing of the sting and verve of your standard Amis prose style. One’s more charitable impulse is to suspect that some of this is meant to be parodic, while one’s more realistic instincts suggest that the author has gone a bit soft, not least when small babies appear on the scene. Most novelists could have written the sentence just quoted, whereas not many would be capable of Amis’s blackly comic description of Diston.
Even the hideous Lionel threatens to become more human as the narrative unfolds, which is another error. He is a murderous thug, not a rough diamond. The novel thus sages somewhat in the middle, before Amis pulls it back in the closing pages. Lionel is not granted some eleventh hour redemption. “I tried being loved,” he remarks sourly. “Thought I’d like it. Didn’t do a fucking thing for me.” He may be a source of brilliant humour, but he is also a sexual sadist who has been psychically crippled by his mother’s promiscuity, and who is brought by his hatred of women to a sticky end. Having “a fucking slag for a mum” has not proved conducive to amicable sexual relations. Which is to say that Lionel isn’t fundamentally responsible for his own viciousness. It’s Diston wot done it. And in this, one might claim, lies a seed of hope.
“State of England” is the novel’s unfortunate subtitle. Is this meant to suggest that Asbo and Diston are what England is all about? Maybe it looks that way from the posh end of Brooklyn to which Amis has now retreated. But large numbers of the English working class, along with a fair slice of the student population, have recently been busy marching, picketing and occupying in protest at the austerity measures imposed upon them. Their anger, unlike Lionel’s, has been directed against criminal bankers and cowboy financiers, not women or intellectuals. One would not expect the comfortably middle class Amis to be especially alert to such matters. It is innocent Muslims, not financial parasites, whom he has chosen to target in his public blow-offs. And though he has swallowed some of the brutally insulting words he used in those onslaughts, he has never had the decency to apologise for them. All the same, he has turned out a work of fiction which for all its flaws displays some of his superb talent as a writer, and perhaps that is the most we can expect from him.