by Martin Amis; Knopf, 2012; 255 pages, $25.95.
In the decades since “The Rachel Papers,” Martin Amis has served as the conscience of our world. At one time the New York Times even christened him “fiction’s angriest writer.” That anger is still very much in evidence in “Lionel Asbo: State of England”; yet the book is surprisingly tender as well, a kind of odious “David Copperfield” or “Great Expectations.”
Lionel Asbo is a lout. “In his outward appearance Lionel was brutally generic — the slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble.”
Six years his uncle’s junior is Desmond Pepperdine, the mixed-race offspring of Lionel’s sister (Pepperdines rarely seem to marry). Desmond is 15 and having an affair with his grandmother Grace, a woman as desperate for love as she is for the latest newspaper acrostic.
Then, while Desmond is contentedly in jail once again, Lionel wins the national lottery, and he is forced to deal with his own “legitimacy” and what that could actually mean.
Though he is the darling of every tabloid in England, spending and living large, Lionel is bright enough to question his upward mobility. He knows that he is rich and famous, but he also knows that “none of them got that way by work of mind.” It is “legitimacy beyond challenge” that troubles Lionel: “It hadn’t gone away — the internal question mark, like a rusty hook, snagged in his innards.” That (dare it be called such?) sensitivity makes Lionel Asbo — reprehensible as he is — almost tolerable.
All this might sound awfully close to those articles that Lionel voraciously reads and Desmond often writes. In the hands of a less nimble writer it could be. In the hands of Martin Amis, “Lionel Asbo: State of England” becomes, incredibly, an imaginatively cautionary account of what we’ve become and a surprisingly (especially from Amis) hopeful illustration of what we can be.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.