Martin Amis’ “Lionel Asbo: State of England.” Rags-to-Riches Fantasy

British novelist, Martin Amis, best-known for writing “Money” (1984) and “London Fields” (1989), is making rounds here of late to promote his newest novel “Lionel Asbo: State of England.”

Depending on the critique you read, “Lionel Asbo” is witty, peppery, topsy-turvy, savage, funny, and mysteriously poignant saga with crisp insights of a fictional rags-to-riches fantasy.

Lionel Asbo, a terrifying yet weirdly loyal thug (self-named after England’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Order). He is proud of his outlaw ways and reign of terror in his impoverished corner of Liverpool.  Lionel’s family life is distinctly odd. He has five brothers — John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (named after the late, largely forgotten original drummer for the Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe) — and an older sister Cilla, all born before their mother turned 19. “So she’s a single parent with seven children who is barely old enough to vote.  Lionel, “a heavily weathered twenty-one,” he is the youngest of Grace’s seven children. Lionel’s most trusted cohorts are his two “psychotic pitbulls,” which he subjects to a brutal training regime involving doses of beer and Tabasco sauce. For all his thuggery and menace, however, Lionel is loyal to his clan. When his sister Cilla, dies, he takes in her son, Desmond. No one, not even Cilla, ever knew anything about Desmond’s father, beyond the fact that, unlike the Pepperdines, he was black.

He provides him with fatherly career advice (always carry a knife, for example) and is determined they should share the joys of pit bulls (fed with lots of Tabasco sauce), Internet porn, and all manner of more serious criminality.  Now 15, book-loving Desmond begins to keep a diary, newly aware of his inner voice and intelligence, the origins of which, given his relatives and surroundings, mystify him. But for all his goodness and braininess, he is trapped in a secret, taboo entanglement that, if Lionel gets wind of it, could cost him his life. So Desmond must be vigilant.

The tension he builds between Lionel and Desmond is at once delicious and harrowing. An ogre and a trickster, Lionel is humongous, stomping, roaring, beyond reason, yet oddly endearing. Elegantly handsome Desmond is watchful, quick, strategic and covertly determined.

Protected from his neighborhood’s rampant racism by the fear his uncle induces, Desmond transcends his legacy, excelling at school, attending college, becoming a journalist and falling in love. Lionel goes to prison. He’s actually quite happy there, trusting Desmond, who can never ever let his guard down, to take care of the devil dogs and other unsavory matters.

Then Lionel wins the lottery, and he wins it big. But as this newly released, suddenly rich, utterly ruthless, tenuously chivalric goon with hidden sexual difficulties and bred-in-the-bone rage embarks on an epic spending spree, he becomes the hounding tabloids’ favorite prey.

No matter what he buys or how he dresses or where he lives, Lionel is castigated as a dumb, low-class, ex-con “Lotto lout,” until Lionel takes up with the hugely ambitious, surgically enhanced, outrageously outfitted model/poet who goes by the pretentious and perhaps portentous name of “Threnody,” a term for a song of lamentation for the dead. Lionel tells an incredulous but ever-polite Desmond that Threnody is helping him “learn to cope with the pressures of my new lifestyle.”

As Desmond and his pregnant wife, Dawn, get drawn into the publicity stunts Threnody cooks up to sanitize Lionel’s image, Amis leads us on, shakes us up, knocks us down, brushes us off, then does it all over again, archly toying with and mocking our expectations. Though some British bits may be puzzling to American readers, the novel’s velocity is all-consuming, and Amis’ jabs hit squarely home as he nimbly delivers stinging surprises, startling turnarounds, bludgeoning moments of horror and eked-out triumphs. And as much as Lionel’s misadventures make us hoot with laughter, what we should be feeling is dread.

Amis’ ironic subtitle, “State of England,” alludes to how, without hobbling the story, he takes on what are, in fact, universal concerns: the myriad obstacles girls and women must overcome, the stranglehold of poverty, the failures of government institutions, the glamorization of crime, our worship of wealth, the bloodlust of the media, and our gullibility, celebrity fever and insatiable appetite for sleaze.

Amis dedicated Lionel Asbo to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December. But he says Hitchens had very little to do with the writing, other than reading an early draft before his death. “When I write about Christopher, maybe about Christopher’s death, that’ll be in a few years’ time,” he says. “An event like that takes several years to move through your whole system, which is what happens in fiction. You have to process it, and it takes a long time.”

In an interview with the Washington Times, Martin Amis spoke candidly with M. Forbes, telling him that “America’s got several veins of irrationality in its system,” Mr. Amis says. “It can’t bear the thought of spending a single cent on someone else’s health care, especially if they are low-life boozers and chain-smokers.” He grins as he rolls his second cigarette. “America has lost its head several times. Prohibition. A trillion-dollar underworld. The reds under the bed stuff. And then Iraq. Most Americans still think Iraq was behind September 11.”

He is suddenly voluble. “We are feeling the first real jitters of America’s decline, which is not due to happen for another generation,” he says. “I suspect it will go through a period of illusion. Britain got through its decline with the help of a sort of leftist culture, where we were made to feel ashamed of ever having an empire. I don’t think America will be as sensible about it as Britain turned out.”

Given his earlier dismissal of Britain’s relevance on the world stage, one wonders whether national decline is really something to be accommodated so passively. “Well, I think the incredible strength and depth of our literature is not a thing of the past,” he says, with keen emphasis. “It will always be there. It is the greatest efflorescence the world has yet known. And that’s very far from being nothing.”

Amis is quite pragmatic although he definitely goes to far when he discusses the suffering in which he would like to see Islam feel. He tries to soften it by saying until that get their act together. However, the comment what extremely condescending and judgmental and underscored the heart void of compassion and fairness.

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