Lionel Asbo: State of England. By Martin Amis. Knopf. 255 pages. $25.95.
“Dear Jennaveive, I’m having an affair with an older woman. She’s a lady of some sophistication. ... The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!”
So begins Martin Amis’ cheeky new novel, “Lionel Asbo.” The writer is Desmond Pepperdine, a 15-year-old orphan who lives with his uncle Lionel. Asbo, the uncle, is a larger than life Brit (“always one size bigger than expected,” according to Des) who makes his living in the “hairy end of debt collection.”
He is one of the seven children (with John, Paul, George, Ringo, Stuart, and Cilla) born to Desmond’s Gran by the time she was 19. Also sharing quarters with the uncle and nephew are Jeff and Joe, a couple of psychopathic pit bulls — “tools of me trade” — who thrive on beer and tabasco sauce.
Together, Des and Lionel offer a composite of human potential, holding, as they do, opposing positions on the nasty/nice scale.
For all the underclass typecasting and the State of England subtitle, Amis isn’t really asking us to wear our sociologist hats. Diston, his setting, is a satirist’s dream, a place where “everything hated everything else. ... Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything.”
Yet Amis’ loose, episodic novel is more interested in staging spectacles than in scoring points. While serving one of his many stints in prison (“You know where you are in prison”), Asbo learns he’s won over 140 million pounds in the lottery. He becomes a celebrity darling, the Lotto Lout, and more fun ensues.
Amis blasts us with such cold shots of hilarity in Part I, it’s a little hard to thaw out for the more humanized final sections. By the end, sweet and lovable Desmond Pepperdine has found love, had a baby, and assumed a profession — just what you’d expect from a lad who was reading Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” at 15 instead of “smashing windows” (his uncle’s suggestion).
Lionel Asbo, predictably, finds his face distorted from all the smiling. “Where’s Lionel Asbo,” he cries out to Des, “I’m gone, boy, I’m gone.” Luckily for readers, he finds himself in time for one last spate of mayhem before the novel closes.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston