State of England
Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $25.95
He was born Lionel Pepperdine but changed his name to "Asbo" for England's commonly known Anti-Social Behaviour Order, which targets vaguely unpleasant activities (like swearing in public) and makes them prosecutable offenses. The titular Lionel Asbo of Martin Amis' latest novel is proud of his anti-social record and happens to also be an actual criminal, a small-time, hulking, violent thug who makes a modest ghetto go of things between stints in jail.
It is into Lionel's unlikely custody that his nephew Desmond is entrusted. Desmond is a sweet, intelligent teenager; when Lionel gives him permission to use their computer and directions to his favorite porn sites, Des instead sets about learning subjects he doesn't get in school. School is largely a failed enterprise, as is the rest of the town of Diston, a fictional post-industrial wasteland so run-down its death rates and life expectancy are like a Third World country's.
Which is why it's not so shocking that, as the book opens, Des is having sex with his grandmother: She's in her dotage only in Diston terms. She's just 40; she became a grandmother by having the first of her seven kids (by six men) at age 12.
In another writer's hands, this might be the stuff of tragedy, but this is Amis, who has written some bitingly brilliant satire, including "London Fields" (1990) and "The Information" (1995).
So Des committing incest with his grandmother is played for laughs. And more important than it being societally objectionable, it's potentially lethal: Lionel has brutalized more than one of his mother's legitimate boyfriends. If found out, Des would be in far greater trouble.
Once we get a sense of the two main characters — brutal Lionel and guileless (apart from his secret gran rendezvous) Des — the plot rolls into action. While in jail, Lionel wins the lottery, an astonishing 139 million pounds ($220 million). With his newfound wealth, he is dubbed the Lotto Lout (not to be confused with Michael Carroll, whom British tabloids called the Lotto Lout after the 19-year-old won the lottery in 2002). Lionel gets free and begins to blow through his money: He buys bespoke suits in garish colors, drinks Champagne by the pint glass, and gets thrown out of the country's poshest hotels.
Lionel the Lotto Lout's drunk and disorderly ways soon land him back in jail, where he has the dual comforts of knowing exactly what's expected of him and getting a break from the tabloids, which delightfully chronicle his every misstep.
Meanwhile, Des is growing up. He got good grades, headed to college and fell for Dawn, a beautiful, kind girl; she's a perfect match but for her father, a bigot who throws her out after learning Des is half-black. The two live in the public housing apartment that Des shared with Lionel, scrambling with part-time jobs to make ends meet.
The young pair bring warmth where there was none. Lionel forced his dogs to live on the balcony, training the pair to be vicious and feeding them a nasty diet of Tabasco and beer; Des and Dawn let them cuddle inside. There are flowers, cleanliness, a sense of comfort. Their domestic life would be ideal but for the phantom Lionel that remains in the middle of it.
Lionel refuses to give up his room — despite his wealth, he pays only one-third of the rent, part of his unspoken plan to squander his winnings only on himself. Released again — he's never in prison for long — he uses his old apartment as a pied-à-ghetto, a place to land while indulging in his old passions for drinking and brawling.
Amis reminds us how low-class Lionel is, adding his vernacular speech in italics throughout the novel: "hypoffesis" after "hypothesis" on Page 17, "frust" after "thrust" on Page 206. Yet he's also cunning. He's clever enough to get financial advisers who will keep him in the black no matter how much he spends and to secure a girlfriend who helps him get the tabloids on his side. "Threnody" (always in quotes, it's part of her brand) is a wanna-be Katie Price, a Brit who parlayed topless modeling into a multimillion-dollar famous-for-being-famous career.
Equipped with a country castle, a famous girlfriend and his Diston haunts, Lionel has everything he might want — and an existential crisis. "You can do anything, see," he tells Des at a nostalgic dinner at KFC. "So you don't — you never … you just think, What's the point?"
Almost 200 pages in, the reader may be thinking the same thing. "Lionel Asbo" wants to show us what happens when the wrong people, rich for the wrong reasons, are celebrated by the tabloid press. Which seems self-evident: We can walk past a grocery newsstand, pull up TMZ, or tune into reality TV and see for ourselves. Simply pointing out that something stupid is stupid isn't particularly funny. Is it possible to write a satire without empathy?
"Lionel Asbo" — which has the unfortunate subtitle "State of England," as if it aspires to be some referendum on the country that Amis recently left behind for America — is too thin for its own good. Minor characters aren't fleshed out; the seven uncles pass by like wraiths. And no one changes: Des is angelic (but for his granny sin), Lionel is, the point seems to be, Lionel. His exploits are the most interesting part of the book, and he's richly imagined — but as he himself points out, eventually, he's got nowhere to go.