Meet the unforgettable Lionel Asbo. He lives in a beleaguered London suburb and, by age 21, has become a fixture in jails and rehab centers for dumb crook antics such as battery, assault, burglary and trafficking in stolen goods.
Lionel adopted his surname in homage to the British designation for people of his ilk: Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Two loyal and demented pit bulls assist Lionel in his work, such as it is. To fortify the dogs with proper malicious motivation, their diet includes beer and Tabasco sauce.
Ward to his 15-year-old orphaned nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, Lionel dispenses his own unique version of paternal wisdom. Always carry a knife. Stop wasting time with school. Choose online porn instead of the complications of female companionship.
When Desmond mentions his interest in writing about a classic poem, Lionel reacts with characteristic outrage.
"I despair of you sometimes, Des," he says. "Why aren't you out smashing windows? It's not healthy."
So it goes in this bawdy, bittersweet coming-of-age tale by Martin Amis. Apologies, but this wicked, clever and playful novel stands as one of the few that actually merits the overused adjective of — wait for it — Dickensian. The tableau of sublimely selfish, misanthropic, greedy and ridiculous characters proves an embarrassment of riches, as do their attendant turns of fortune and misfortune.
Amis brands Lionel as Desmond's anti-dad. To wit: "Lionel spoke; Des listened and did otherwise."
When the reader first meets Desmond, he is writing a never-to-be-sent letter to a newspaper relationship columnist. His plight? Desmond has fallen into a sexual relationship with his 39-year-old grandmother, who, of course, is Lionel's mother.
Lionel doesn't like his mother all that much, but, as Desmond recognizes, he would almost certainly kill his nephew if the short-lived liaison were to be discovered.
That they live in Diston Town, where the average citizen never sees his or her 60th birthday and the rate of youthful child-bearing compares to that of a Third World country, lays a foundation for Amis that provides endless satire and silliness.
From the Tabasco-swilling dogs to a comically malfunctioning kitchen garbage can, Amis ladles out foreshadowing in his crisp narrative, but the efficient mechanics of this novel pale next to the riotous storytelling. To cite but one of many examples, consider young Desmond's grandmother, 39-year-old Grace Pepperdine.
She subsists on a diet of crosswords and heavy-rotation Beatles. Grace lives in a flat a mile away from Lionel and Desmond, who share a most humble apartment on the 33rd floor of Avalon Towers. Poor plumbing plagues her house. Lionel, of course, sends his nephew to tend to Grace's plumbing, though he has no clue that grandmother and grandson embrace the literal and figurative alike.
And, as Desmond writes in his unsent letter of ethical regret, the first time Grace seduced him, The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" played on the stereo. Nice touch, that. Grace, residing in the abbreviated lifespan of Diston, counts another track by the Fab Four as her favorite: "When I'm Sixty-Four." Then, too, Grace and Desmond dub Lionel "Mean Mr. Mustard."
Grace gave birth to the first of her seven children at age 12. Her first-born was Cilla, who, in symmetrical fashion, had Desmond when she, too, was 12. Lionel is the last of Grace's six sons; the others are named John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stu (as in Sutcliffe, the forgotten fifth Beatle, Amis helpfully informs his readers).
None other than William Faulkner summed up top-notch storytelling as nothing more, or less, than a tale of the human heart in conflict with itself. Amis has that here in abundance, but, for a bit of lagniappe, he sprinkles in a measure of tabloid journalism, adds a dollop of instant fame and finishes with the reliable spice of intermingling among the upper and lower classes.
This last Amis brings about through a running gag of Lionel dismissing the lottery as a waste of time. (Yes, even deviants have their standards.) During yet another prison stint, Lionel, as an afterthought, instructs his nephew to pick some numbers and play the lottery for him. Does said ticket net Lionel Asbo 140 million pounds and make him a cause célèbre? Indeed it does.
And here Amis shifts into a higher gear, sending Lionel into posh London hotels and setting the pit bull master free in the proverbial five-star china shop. Of Lionel, Amis writes he is "the great asocial" who, even as a toddler, "was an implacable hoarder and non-sharer."
Lionel quaffs Dom Perignon from beer glasses, buys a Bentley and moves to a pastoral estate, though he maintains a room in his old apartment for his stolen goods. Desmond identifies these as bundles of "dodgy old mobile phones. Old bottles of North Korean steroids all stuck together. And a load of old videos off the Adult Channel."
Des, armed with a degree, becomes a crime reporter and lands a funny, smart girlfriend with equally upward mobile aspirations in the face of family misery.
The London tabs have a field day with the nation's newly minted millionaire. Lionel earns sobriquets ranging from the Lotto Lout to the Bingo Bozo and the Numbers Numbskull as his public drunkenness and various brawls make him a Lohan-like obsession. A parade of hangers-on — hopeless PR flacks, accountants, drivers and so on — amble onstage, too, each and every one vexed by Lionel Asbo.
All the while, Grace Pepperdine slips into a nervous breakdown precipitated by still another fling with a classmate of Desmond's. (Lionel makes her co-conspirator disappear in a most unpleasant manner, much to Desmond's horror.)
Even as Desmond pulls himself out of his misery and wins entry to the university, he frets. Because as long as Grace lives, the threat lingers that she might slip and tell Lionel of her brief, illicit (and illegal) affair with Desmond.
At 17, Amis writes, Desmond "had found a way of coexisting with his conscience." Lionel, upon becoming a millionaire, drops porn for a parade of bimbos, including an aspiring poetess named "Threnody," who, natch, insists on keeping the quote marks around her name, a walking air-quote, if you will. Hers is a sad song of cosmetic surgery, but Amis milks plenty of laughs from her clueless self-aggrandizement. During one rough patch, she decamps for Afghanistan to read poetry at a military base in Kandahar and contemplates shedding her burqa to show off her new line of underwear.
Can such human wreckage be repaired? During a publicity blitz aimed at buffering his buffoonish, tawdry image, Lionel tells Des, "You just let you personality come out. And then they putty in you hands."
He, of course, should have known better. As for readers, they'll find the state of England, in the hands of Martin Amis, irresistible indeed.