[xrr rating=4.0/5]The pleasures of a Martin Amis novel cannot often be described as simple, and if I do so here, please be assured I am not damning with faint praise. Lionel Asbo is purely entertaining in ways not always allowed by the complex thickets of prose in Amis classics such as Money and London Fields, without sacrificing his joyously precise verbal finesse or comic flair for capturing the extremities of human (male) behavior.

Lionel Asbo has been billed as a satire of British tabloid culture, and one key plot point—the title character, an oft-imprisoned thug from a London slum, wins big in the lottery and becomes a national celebrity—occasionally drives the book in that direction. But Amis isn’t interested in scoring easy points against slow-moving targets, although Lionel’s publicity-driven dalliance with a vapid media darling named “Threnody” (quotation marks hers) is pretty funny. Lionel fits right in with previous Amis anti-heroes—the sinister darts-playing crook Keith Talent from London Fields, the profligate self-destructor John Self from Money—but he is rather cuddlier than his forebears, and in any case he’s not the protagonist. The hero of Lionel Asbo is, despite his lack of eponymy, Lionel’s nephew Desmond “Des” Pepperdine, an unusually sympathetic and sensitive Amis character. Des is raised by his criminal uncle, and the ongoing bond between the two provides the novel with its throughline as Des matures into young adulthood and Lionel becomes a tabloid icon. Des’s own overcoming of low circumstances is measured against his father figure’s less deserving rise (and inevitable fall).

In telling the story of orphaned Des, Amis adopts a narrative mode quite different from his typical Nabokovian gamesmanship: a Dickensian bildungsroman, with a grandly omniscient third-person narrator instead of the unreliable first-person psychos often favored by the author. The result resembles a twisted Oliver Twist, with un-Victorian references to porn, MILFs and incest. Not that Amis is overly concerned with debauchery this time—on the contrary, all is sincerity and sweetness. Even the aforementioned incest, which is introduced on the first page and reverberates until the last, acquires meaning as an odd moral albatross rather than a device for shocks or uneasy laughs. The balance between outsized comic conceits and tender evocation of familial love in a hardscrabble milieu demonstrates the inadequacy of a term like “social satire” to describe what Amis is up to here.

Des and Lionel are wonderful creations, but Amis also brings to life the fictitious poor neighborhood of Diston Town. The all-seeing narrator provides sharp descriptions on every page, including this honey, which I’d put up against any passage from vintage Amis: “In Diston – in Diston everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back. Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything, and all was weightless, and all hated weight.” The storybook quality of this prose is consistent throughout the novel; in interviews, Amis has described Lionel Asbo as a kind of fairy tale, and a surprisingly dark climactic turn makes absolutely clear that this tale has a wolf—although Amis is optimistic enough not to have the wolf win. Are we seeing a kinder, gentler Amis—as any recent profile will tell you, the former “enfant terrible” of Brit-lit is now in his sixties—or is it simply an Amis with a sharper, more specific focus than usual? The book’s subtitle, State of England, turns out to be something of a red herring: Amis teases an ironic riff on English novels of social commentary, then delivers the most stealthily heartfelt novel of his career. Amis’ idol Vladimir Nabokov said that satire is a lesson and parody is a game. Lionel Asbo is neither lesson nor game—it’s something blessedly simpler.

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