It was as if the Queen had said she'd opened enough shopping malls and was emigrating to the Falklands.
Amis, it was felt in some quarters, was turning his back on his homeland which for decades has offered nothing but resentment, denying him the Booker Prize and mocking him for the money he spent on his teeth. The gist of the coverage was good riddance to bad rubbish. He was an overrated hasbeen whose best books were behind him.
Lionel Asbo is Amis's first novel written since he took up residence in the United States of Amnesia. It is, however, set in 21st-century Britain, specifically England. Lest we miss this, it is sub-titled 'State Of England', which may be interpreted simply as a statement of fact or an acid comment on the country's condition. Most readers, one suspects, will prefer the latter, though apparently Amis himself insists that it is not. "I just liked the phrase," he said recently.
Much as one would like to believe him, it is hard on the evidence before us. Lionel Asbo, the novel's eponymous principal character, is the kind of Englishman with whom we are all too familiar. He is, as his surname suggests, to anti-social behaviour what Fanny Hill was to houghmagandy. He committed his first crime when he was a toddler, a record he proudly held until he was gazumped by a two-year-old. As others leapfrog from prep school to Eton to Oxbridge, Lionel has gone from one court appearance to another.
He is 21 when we encounter him, living in Diston Town, an unlovely area of outer London, playing uncle to his 15-year-old nephew Desmond. He is the owner of a pair of "psychopathic pitbulls" which he keeps on a diet of alcohol, Tabasco and mutton vindaloo in order to make them more savage. Lionel's mother is named Grace, who has reached the age of 39, which is quite elderly in Diston. By 19, she'd had seven children, all by different fathers, whom she named after the Beatles, including Stuart Sutcliffe, who was chucked out of the group before they became famous. Her one girl is called Cilla after you know who. By the time Lionel, the runt of the litter, came along, Grace had run out of Beatles to name him after, so she called him after the choreographer Lionel Blair.
All of which is quite funny and not untypical. One thinks of those parents who aspire to have 11 children so they can name them after the players in their favourite football team. "Out in the great world city," writes Amis, "there were hundreds of thousands young men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo. In certain lights and settings he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney: not exceptionally tall, and not fat, but exceptionally broad and deep ... He even had Rooney's gap-toothed smile. Well, the upper incisors were widely spaced, yet Lionel seldom smiled. You only saw them when he sneered".
This is classic Amis, whose own gilded antecedents and high connections have not prevented him from becoming au fait with the Sun-reading classes. Asbo, of course, is not Lionel's real name. He has chosen it and wears it like a badge of honour, as others might an OBE. He takes pride in his criminal career and the fear he provokes. To him, prison is almost seen as a perk of the job. Like rogan josh and porn, he opines, you know where you are when you're in prison. Moreover, he despises education and does everything he can to thwart Desmond's ambitions to have a proper job. Do something useful, he tells him. "Steal a car."
Readers of Money and London Fields, both of which are more ambitious than Lionel Asbo, will be familiar with the terrain. Lionel is a boy/man of our times, of the kind you wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley. On the page, however, he is electric. He may be a yob and a philistine and, by the by, a murderer, but he has energy, humour and a brutal ability to survive. Moreover, he knows how to play the system. The novel's turning point comes when he wins almost £140 million on the lottery, transforming him overnight from a footnote on to the front page, living the life of a plastic celebrity in all its prefabricated glory.
There are rich pickings here for Amis who has much fun sending up not only Lionel and his splendidly named girlfriend Threnody, but those who leech off him. This is the England of PRs, paparazzi and pretentiousness, of too much money and not enough brains, of Max Cliffords, Piers Morgans and Jordans, of tabloids and racists and 'glamour' models.
Language is the engine of Amis's satire. While Desmond, schooled at Squeers Free, uses education hopefully to release him from this hell, Lionel refuses to learn anything except that which he needs when arrested. No one knows better than him the difference between ABH and "its sterner older brother", GBH. When he himself is threatened, which is often, he never depends on the law of the land. Unlike John Donne, Lionel is an island entire of himself. He needs no-one. When he and Threnody break up, she gives a "groundbreaking" interview to the Daily Mail. "He's that patriotic," she says. "He hasn't even got a passport – and he won't get one!"
The rest of the world can rest easy, then, Amis included. Apart from a few well-travelled football hooligans and Ibiza-bound clubbers, Lionel and his ilk are rarely found beyond their bailiwick. Towards the end of the novel, however, Lionel does go to Wick, to where he has banished Grace in the hope of curbing her randy tendencies and which he declares "shut". Its residents should be grateful. For the country which is portrayed in this novel is about as far removed from that which the BBC and others served up last weekend for the Diamond Jubilee marathon. That England was much less true to life than Amis's England, which anyone with the means and common sense would surely leave in a jiffy.
lionel asbo: state of england
Martin Amis Jonathan Cape, £18.99