Lionel Asbo: State of England is Martin Amis’ version of a British “kitchen sink” drama, a gritty excursion into the lives of the country’s poor, foul-mouthed denizens. In many ways, it’s a more trumped-up, bawdier version of dear ol’ dad Kingsley’s tales of English people behaving oh so naughtily.
Amis takes the crude, garbage British tabloid (sorry, “newspaper”) as the jumping off point for creating his monstrous anti-hero, which is all too effective — though he could be accused of plucking at low-hanging fruit, when such dim-witted, casually cruel behaviour is lauded (or ignored) by most of the public. Well, perhaps a not-so-subtle approach is necessary — fans of Amis’ work don’t expect to hear middling views, and to his credit (and occasional detriment), this is a man who lives and writes viciously.
Lionel Asbo is a common thug, given to a large dose of ultra-violence when desired, who ekes out a living as a thief and petty gangster. The small bit of sentiment he has is reserved for his two ugly pit bulls and his long-suffering nephew, Desmond. While doing another short stint in jail, Lionel discovers that a recently purchased lottery ticket has made him filthy rich (to the tune of 140 million pounds). While Desmond struggles with the usual aches of adolescence — including, uh, banging (shagging?) his grandma (elderly at the ripe old age of 39) — Lionel turns his wealth into a sort of performance piece. He hires a publicist and gets his name in the papers, all while committed to his satisfyingly grotesque lifestyle.
Readers won’t have any trouble seeing where this gleefully dismal tale is going, and Amis is happy to act as the deranged narrator of the lurid sideshow. Unlike his recent non-fiction (and antagonistic interviews), he seems to be actually having fun here, even if the reader isn’t — like a lot of Amis’ novels, the prose occasionally exhausts itself chasing the multi-limbed narrative.
Despite the topical, celebrity-centred story, it feels and reads like a Martin Amis novel —- the goofy, crass sex of The Rachel Papers and The Pregnant Widow, the angry polemicist behind Money, and the damn-near incomprehensible grammarian behind Time’s Arrow. It’s a nice change (and probably a smart move) for Amis, who’s been known lately, like recently deceased best pal Christopher Hitchens, as more of a grumpy, anti-Muslim pamphleteer (see the frustratingly articulate essay collection The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom) than a novelist and critic.
What Amis loses in steely intellectualism, he gains in fury — Lionel Asbo is an angry novel, relentlessly force-feeding readers a rotten meal of beatings and sloppy seconds (delivered in an oft-incomprehensible English dialect). It’s not always clear what Amis is aiming for here — an impassioned defence of lives lived in quiet desperation, or a cranky screed against tabloid journalism. Either way, it’s a page-turner and more than a little abusive. It’s hard not to agree with Amis, but too often the novel feels like the schoolyard bully who cheerily tells you to stop hitting yourself while pummeling you with your own fists.