Asked in a 1995 interview about his fascination with Milton, Martin Amis described the loss of innocence in Paradise Lost as “the basic tragic story of our culture.” Milton, Amis said, “liked the devil” and game him “the best lines.” Amis has not made the eponymous character of his new book Lionel Asbo so likable, but in the circle of hell Lionel creates, he does get some good lines. As in Paradise Lost, viscous dogs, howling and gnashing their teeth, play a pivotal role in the plot. Each of the four sections begins with a question, “Who let the dogs in?” It becomes a kind of refrain, invoking ancient myth (pronounced miff, by Lionel) in the setting of post-modern London, where “the winters were medievally cold.” This is also a glittering satire of white working class Londoners as the subtitle tells us: Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis recently moved himself and his family to New York. Is he hoping for better on this side of the Atlantic?
There was a moment in the mythic history of the West when married partners de-coupled, becoming interrelated but separately functioning human beings, however much they continued to respect communal values and to support necessary institutions. Wives ceased to make a job of their husbands, husbands ceased to expect their wives to make a job of them; girls moved from the world of childhood in which they were life-leased to their husbands, and turned into adults earning their own way. Boys became adults able to care for their own emotional needs. This is the mythic moment when the Victorian and Edwardian worlds become the Modern world.
In Amis’s novel, one couple, making a merely cameo appearance, represent the old world of romantic married love: Amis with characteristic wit names them Ernest and Joy Nightingale, parents of Desmond classmate Rory Nightingale. The Nightingale couple, Amis tells us,
. . .seemed to have waddled out of the 1950s. Both about forty-five, both about five foot four, and both unprosperously but contentedly tublike in shape. You never saw them single; and on the streets they always walked in step, and hand in hand. Once, as he ate an apple that Joy had just given him, Des watched the Nightingales negotiate the zebra crossing. Halfway over, a dropped handkerchief and a passing truck contrived to separate them; Ernest waited attentively on the far curbside, and then off they went again, in step, and hand in hand.
Their son is another matter — “far more than averagely wised up,” like one of those youths “behind the scenes at funfairs and circuses-in their own sphere, with their own secrets, and with that carny, peepshow knowledge in the thin smile of their eyes.” In Lionel Asbo, as in earlier Amis novels, the strictures of a Victorian society have long since fallen away, replaced not by responsible adults but by children in adult bodies, and in the case of Lionel, children fiercely loyal to their families, childishly narcissistic, with unrestrained carnal appetites.
The Nightingales might be a touching couple, even heart-warming in this desolate landscape, if they were not weak, pathetic and ill-starred. Later in Lionel Asbo a different kind of relationship will emerge, one that more closely realizes the ideals of mature individuation, but for now, at this stage in the story’s unfolding, the Nightingales illusion of domestic comfort quickly disintegrates in the Hell of Diston Town. At the center of this inferno is Lionel Asbo, with his “slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawn stubble,” Lionel who gives off steam and drinks a hefty consignment of lager (Brand: Cobra).
Lionel was once Lionel Oldman or Pepperdine, it’s not clear which; in either case, the family has come down in the world. He is “the youngest of a very large family superintended by a single parent who was barely old enough to vote.” His father studied economics at the University of Manchester — a fact that plants the seeds of ambition in Lionel’s ward and nephew, Desmond Pepperdine. Lionel is not exactly stupid; he has the equivalent of a PhD in criminal law, versed as he is in the fine distinctions of Actual Bodily Harm and “its sterner older brother, Grievous.” But like much else in the London borough of Diston, he is in decline: even is verbal prose and his accent seems to be decaying as he no longer manages to pronounce his own name; it’s become Loyonel or Loyonoo.
Amis has a Dickensian way with names: Lionel’s older half-brothers, each by a different father, are John (a plasterer), Paul (a foreman), George (a plumber), Ringo (who plays the Lottery), and Stuart (after the “forgotten” Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe). Lionel had changed his own name, by deed poll when he turned eighteen, to Asbo, after England’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Order, by which Lionel was labeled before he even entered kindergarten. In Lionel Asbo, Amis continues from earlier novels his brilliant use of dialect and verbal tics to depict character and class: The nearest thing Lionel has to a girlfriend — he sees her regularly every for or five months — is a “spectral blonde” called Cynthia, or Cymfia as Lionel mouths it.
Amis’s plotting, too, is virtuosic. The book opens with Lionel’s nephew Desmond Pepperdine, “Renaissance Boy” as he is described, writing a letter to Jennaveieve, a Abagail Van Buren, the Agony Angel of the London tabloids. Des is a teenage who has been seduced by his grandmother: “The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!” The grandmother in question is Lionel’s mother. Desmond’s relationship with his “Gran” sets events in motion, aided by Lionel’s psychopathic pit bulls, who live on the narrow balcony off the kitchen and feed on meat generously seasoned with Tabasco sauce. In the first dozen pages the seeds are planted for a plot it would be criminal to reveal.
Lionel Asbo is a tale of incest, alcoholism, greed, brutality, and vengeance, revealing a seamy world of extortion and murder, vulgarity and besottedness. If I were writing about Amis’s earlier novels, I’d add illicit sex and drugs to the mix, however no sex in this lower class world of Diston Town is illicit. Raunchy, surely. Tormented, traumatizing and violent? Often. And the drug of choice is booze. Lionel’s motivating force is not women or recognition, but loyalty and vengeance.
To his ward and nephew, Desmond, Lionel is “a kind of anti-dad or counterfather,” loaning fourteen-year-old Desmond his iMac and urging him to go to porn sites like “Fucked-up Facials.” For a few years, Desmond goes along in his role of Christ, meek, loyal, humble, sympathetic to loose women (his Gran), capable of kindness. His loyalty to his counter-father is a loyalty to his past, the only family he has; but as he matures, forms a reciprocal relationship with another scholar appropriately named Dawn, and with her fathers a child, his focus shifts to the future — his child’s future and his new family’s.
Although Desmond’s own father — pointed out to him as a small child as the shabby man sleeping or unconscious on a park bench — is black, the tensions in this novel are not between race and class as they are in Amis’s earlier novel London Fields, for example. Rather, they are moral tensions between the vulgar, bestial world of Lionel ASBO and the civilized world of Desmond Pepperdine. They are also tensions between family and tribal loyalty and a commitment to a larger community, between vengeance for the past and steely dedication to the future. At the core of Lionel ASBO is relationship. Lionel’s urges and desires, preceding any concern for the objects that satisfy them, are more easily satisfied by pornography than persons, who are always “more trouble than they’re worth.” Desmond seeks satisfaction in the context of mutual relationships. Threats to those relationships awaken the sleepy boy and turn him into a tough, determined man. In the process, like Adam in the Garden, he loses his innocence — and lost innocence, as Amis learned while sitting on Milton’s knee, is “the history of the world.”
Zara Raab's most recent books are Rumpelstiltskin, or What's in a Name? (Finishing Line Press) and Fracas & Asylum (David Robert Books, 2013). She lives in western Massachusetts. Visit her at http://www.zararaab.com.