Lionel Asbo: What the dickens, Martin Amis!

Martin Amis is a brilliant writer and he really lets it rip in his novel, Lionel Asbo. The colourful characters could be descended straight from Charles Dickens. Amis writes about the modern English chav with the same gusto as Dickens wrote about Victorian low life.

Lionel Asbo in some ways recalls David Copperfield — with one difference. Lionel Asbo, the title character, is a violent young thug with a long criminal record. He wins millions of pounds in the lottery but does not change for the better. His new-found wealth simply adds to his notoriety as a big-spending, brawling, heavy-drinking lout who becomes a tabloid celebrity for his wild extravagance and brushes with the law.

What makes the novel reminiscent of David Copperfield is the other main character in the story — Lionel’s nephew, Desmond, called “Des”. This book is as much about him as his “Uncle Li”. A mixed-race boy, an orphan whose mother died shortly after his birth, he lives with his uncle. He does not know who his father is except that he is an African with whom his mum had sex in her teens.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising the boy gets up to no good, but after a juvenile affair with a much older relative breaking the sexual taboo, Desmond makes good.

He finishes school, goes to college, becomes a cabbie and then a journalist. Shades of David Copperfield again. David becomes a writer, Desmond a newsman. Like David, he also settles into a life of cheerful domesticity with his sweetheart, Dawn.

But he still has to contend with his “Uncle Li”, who has moved into a palatial manor with his new-found wealth but refuses to give up his room in the old flat he shared with his nephew in a dilapidated tower block.

Amis writes about the run-down neighbourhood prone to violence and crime with the same vividness that Dickens described Victorian squalor. There is the occasional purple patch such as this, describing a sunny day:

It was the kind of morning that the citizens of this island rarely saw: an established and adamant clarity, with the sun pinned into place, as firm as a gilt tack; and the sky, seemingly embarrassed by such exalted pressure, kept blushing an even deeper blue…

Amis writes with his tongue in his cheek and has fun at the expense of Lionel the lout whose education has not kept up with his wealth. Here he is in Scotland…

Now Lionel turned to the menu and attentively ordered the Full Caledonian Breakfast. “But none of you Aberdeen blood pudding,” he told the grizzled waiter, who took note. “And none of you, uh, none of you fuckin’ Orkney kippers. Just the English bit…”

Lionel’s mum, Desmond’s “gran”, Grace, is a colourful character, too — a Beatles-loving, chain-smoking, crossword-solving widow who named her older sons John, Paul, George and Ringo. Still in her 40s, she is not allowed to have any affairs by Lionel, her youngest son, who takes terrible revenge on one of her young lovers and packs her off to an old-age home after he wins the lottery.

There is a scene in the old-age home where gravely ill she babbles words that don’t seem to make any sense till Desmond realizes she is recalling crossword clues. It is as memorable as anything written by Dickens. Amis has the same manic imagination.

Even some of the minor characters are memorable. For example, a man Lionel meets in prison who has been jailed for keeping a fat dog, ignoring his local council’s order to get it into shape. As if that wasn’t incredible enough, the man says he once broke his leg when he tried to get up from his couch after watching television for 17 hours.

Lionel Asbo is outlandish, strange, packed with knaves, villains and weirdos. Growing up in such an environment, how Desmond becomes a respectable, law-abiding journalist seems more than a miracle. But he has a loving wife — and a baby daughter.

The novel ends with Desmond and Dawn doting on their daughter.

And now Cilla announced she was awake, awake and of the company. She did this, as always, not with tears but with song. They thought she must be singing in imitation of the birds — the birds you could still sometimes hear, up on the thirty-third floor, so high above Diston town.

The scene is as tender as the ending in David Copperfield, where David finishes his autobiography with words of love for his dear wife, Agnes:

I turn my head, and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me.

My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence, without which I were nothing, bears me company.

O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!