State Of England would describe the ease with which a Marty prole could achieve celebrity and feature a thinly disguised Katie Price, whereas the non-fiction Life would be a writerly affair, its principal characters being his father Kingsley, the latter’s great friend Philip Larkin and Amis’s hero Saul Bellow. Slithering away from his flat that night – it was snowing but your correspondent was also drunk – I decided the one I really wanted to read was Life. I’d loved all the early books where Marty slummed it, but enough was enough.
Well, two years on there’s no sign of Life but there’s plenty of life left in Amis as a satirist of these strange times. State Of England has been relegated to the subtitle, barged out of the way by Lionel Asbo – aged 21 at the outset, passing resemblance to Wayne Rooney, works in the “hairiest end of debt collection”, who we meet “giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet” as he keeps his pitbulls mean with Tabasco.
That moniker? His mother ran out of Beatles names for her numerous sons (including Stuart as in Sutcliffe) so she called him after a “much lesser hero”, Lionel Blair. He’s really Pepperdine, but Lionel changed that to Asbo in recognition of his national record for being the youngest recipient of a restraining order – three years, two days. Go on, admit it: you’re liking this book already.
Actually, I didn’t right away. The character for whom we’re expected to have the most sympathy early on is Lionel’s nephew Des Pepperdine who’s been raised by our anti-hero (“Don’t say I don’t look after yer”). Des is black and from the 12th floor of the Avalon Tower high-rise in the fictional London borough of Diston, dreams of university. Fair enough, but I was worried where Amis was going with Des’s tryst with his gran. Queasy echoes of Little Britain are never good, but the fling fizzles out and then entertainment can begin.
Lionel wins £140 million on the Lottery and because he was in jail at the time – along with everyone else from an especially lively wedding – he immediately gets dubbed the Lotto Lout, Jackpot Jailbird, Tombola Tom o’ Bedlam, etc.
Unsurprisingly he goes money mad, splashing £12,000 on socks, donning a dinner jacket “woven from the wool of the chiru, an endangered Tibetan antelope” to wrestle with a lobster and lose – checking into a hotel to escape the paparazzi, getting chucked out for torching his suite, punching the paps.
Then he employs a PR, who secures him access to a hotel that welcomes bad behaviour. “In its candyishly bright and airy public rooms you might glimpse a recently imprisoned bratpack actor, an incensed fashion model, a woman-beating Premiership footballer”. This ludicrous establishment boasts “zero ejections” in its desktop brochure. “There were never fewer than three plasma TVs at the bottom of the swimming pool… plus a selection of iPod docks, camcorders, laptops and minibars.”
Amis is sometimes accused of making fun of the lower orders, but here, often brilliantly, the jokes are on those who exploit the Lionels of this world when they suddenly come into money or notoriety: the press, the media middle-men, the hangers-on, the morally outraged, the TV creatives who dream up shows like I’m A Superstar, What the F*** Am I Doing Here? And don’t forget you and me – well, actually, you: for being in thrall to the tiny, manufactured dramas of D-list (and invariably double D-cup) celebs and buying all those daft magazines which perpetuate the rivalries and spats. I really hope Katie Price and her old rival Jodie Marsh read this book, and that they laugh at Threnody and Danube – competing here with knicker launches, mascoteering for Our Brave Boys, poetry (poetry!), baby tragedies – and don’t sue.
Amis obviously had the most tremendous fun dreaming up rubbish verse and spoofing tabloid-ese. As ever he’s great at names: people and pubs. But eventually Lionel Asbo tires of style bars with their “affectless TV screens” showing, randomly and silently, “Miss World, Sputnik, chorus line, death camp, goosestep, wet T-shirt, grassy knoll”, and returns to his Diston local, the Lady Godiva.
Swapping the chiru for the trusty baseball cap, he returns, too, to his old Avalon Tower gaff where Des, who’s studied criminology and become a journalist, has moved in his pregnant teacher-girlfriend. Towards the end, when the child arrives, Amis delivers some of the most tender writing he’s yet put down in print.
As one who loves to quote writers he loves, he often trots out the Kurt Vonnegut line: “Everyone thinks that I’m tough and slick but really I’m as soft as a sneaker-ful of puppy shit.” That’s him too. And now I want to read him on more writers, the old man and all.
Lionel Asbo: State Of England
Jonathan Cape £18.99