It’s not fashionable to like Amis’ later novels. The received wisdom is that since his glory days of Money, London Fields or The Information (my personal favourite), he has steadily become more eccentric and less ‘in touch’ with the world he lives in, and London in particular. While this may be true in some ways, how he puts words together is still a delight (I even enjoyed The House of Meetings). While Lionel Asbo isn’t as much of a return to form as The Pregnant Widow seemed to be, it’s still well worth a read.
Lionel Asbo is a serial jail-bird pit bull-owning thug. He lives with his orphaned nephew Des Pepperdine (the nearest you’ll get to a sympathetic character in an Amis novel) in the fictional London neighbourhood of Diston, where life expectancy is fifty-four and on average single mums have six kids. Lionel (or Loyonoo as he pronounces it) has had so many ASBOs served against him (his first when he was still a toddler) that he has changed his name by deed poll. While Lionel is serving yet another prison sentence he wins £139,999,999.50 on the lottery, and is thrust into a world of ‘lotto lout’ limelight, getting barred from five star hotels and dating Jordan-esque glamour models. Des, meanwhile, is studying at university and living in Lionel’s old high-rise flat with his pregnant girlfriend. The bulk of the novel charts the way in which each of the cast of disreputable and broken people react to Lionel’s new-found wealth.
It is true that the characters and plot are outlandish. It seems Amis is trying, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, to create a dystopian fairy tale for our fame- and wealth-obsessed times. In Asbo though, he has created as threatening and compelling character as he has managed to do for years. There is a great sense of dread and pressure that pervades the book. The prose is every bit as complicated, winning and prone to linguistic acrobatics as you would expect it to be, but it’s the simple descriptions that do it for me. Early in the novel, Asbo is debating whether his latest offence should be classed ABH or GBH:
‘Criminal law, after all, was the third element in his vocational trinity, the other two being villainy and prison.’
Asbo’s Alma Mater Stallwort prison is described as ‘looking like a terrible school for very old men’; and the scene where Asbo treats his brothers to a swanky dinner, knowing that they all desperately need a hand-out and that he has no intention of giving them a bean, is as good as any Amis has written.
I did get annoyed on one point of detail. Lionel is named after the great light entertainer Lionel Blair, because his mum, with five sons already, had run out of Beatles to inspire the name of her sixth son. Mention is made of how she even named one of the five after the ‘forgotten’ Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe. If she’s such a huge fan, why didn’t she name Lionel after Pete Best, the drummer before Ringo? Don’t make such a point of making a character a loopy Beatles fan and then get that wrong. Annoying.
This book may be over the top, so much so that it’s an easy target for all the blinkered Amis-haters out there. If you’re one of them, then don’t bother reading it. If you’ve got an open mind though, and can go with the distorted and disfigured world presented, then you’ll enjoy it.