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Lionel Asbo

Martin Amis

RL 'Lotto Lout': Michael Carroll, one of the country’s most notorious lottery winners, was living with his uncle in 2002 when, aged 19, he won a £9.7 million jackpot. He became infamous after collecting his winnings wearing an electronic tag and went on to squander the fortune on drink, drugs and prostitutes. He also gave money to relatives, including Mr Muncaster and his wife at the time. Mr Carroll was also handed an Asbo for terrorising neighbours and was twice jailed for drugs offences and affray, ending up penniless. By 2013 he was speaking of sleeping rough in a forest while he waited to start work in a factory packing tins of shortbread in Moray, northeast Scotland. He is now understood to be working in a slaughterhouse near Elgin.

Pity poor Lionel Asbo, a thug burdened by a vestigial conscience, his every ignoble thought and gesture determined by his maker, Martin Amis, a man not given to mercy. The antihero of Amis's new novel, "Lionel Asbo: State of England," Lionel takes the kind of drubbing only satire can sustain. The youngest of the seven mostly criminal and largely dysfunctional children his mother bore by the age of 19, Lionel works at the very hairiest end of debt collection. Like his literary progenitor, the jet-setting John Self of Amis's 1984 novel, "Money: A Suicide Note," Lionel is in hot - desperate, tormented and doomed - pursuit of whatever gratifications might be wrung from the free fall and decline of contemporary society.

Distinguished by the surname he assumed to celebrate his having received, at age 3, the Anti-Social Behavior Order (introduced in 1998 by Prime Minister Tony Blair's Crime and Disorder Act), Lionel divides his time among Extortion With Menaces, Receiving Stolen Property and their inevitable result: prison. Along with pornography, Lionel considers prison one of the two reliable pillars of civilization. As he tries to teach Desmond, or Des, the orphaned nephew he shelters, when you're incarcerated "at least you know where you are."

Des is, alas, a most unpromising apprentice, unaccountably preferring books to criminality. But the scholar's is a lonely life in Diston (read Dystopia), where Des shares a flat with his uncle, along with Lionel's two Tabasco- and alcohol-fueled pit bulls. In Diston, "with its gravid primary schoolers and toothless hoodies, its wheezing 20-year-olds, arthritic 30-year-olds, crippled 40-year-olds, demented 50-year-olds, and nonexistent 60-year-olds," life has sunk to the quintessential Hobbesian low: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Lionel's mother, Grace, 39, is therefore making haste to find pleasure wherever she can, even if it comes in the form of her grandson, Lionel's nephew. Des, whose predicament Amis summarizes as a fall "from grace to Grace," knows that while in Diston incest is "not considered that bad," Lionel isn't likely to forgive Des's shagging his mother. The suspense generated by the possibility of his volatile uncle learning the awful truth sustains the trajectory of "Lionel Asbo" from one close call to the next. When reckless Grace descends into what may be depression rather than what Lionel calls "that German lurgy that rots you brain," he takes it as an excuse to shunt her off to an old folks' home in the ominously named "Cape Wrath," from which she speaks like an oracle, in hints and riddles.

Luckily for Des, Lionel is distracted from his suspicions about his 'slag' of a mother when his criminal career is derailed by his winning the lottery. With high-ticket lawyers to keep him out of prison, Lionel disappears, as Des says, "into the front page." Once 'Lotto Lout' becomes a tabloid darling he's easy prey for gold-digging celebutantes. Almost instantly, the wealth he imagined he wanted parts him from his life's two mainstays: prison and porn. Or, as he confides in Des, now the only time he knows he's breathing is when he's "doing some skirt" and discovering just how discombobulating real sex can be.

Despite a time frame that gallops forward into 2013 and a wealth of irresistibly hyperbolized pop cultural references, "Lionel Asbo" is at heart an old-fashioned novel, earnest in its agenda. The "yttrium credit card," a few avatars beyond that platinum Amex in your wallet, "reality telethons" and even pit bulls that blaspheme in lieu of barking can't distract us from a theme familiar to the audience of Amis's forebear, Dickens: the corrupting influence of money. Like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and other of the great novelist-qua-social-critic's orphaned and destitute child heroes, Des provides a foil for the low company he keeps. As demonstrated by his earlier novels, Amis is, like Dickens, an insistently moral writer, satire being an edifying genre with a noble cause: the improvement of society.

"Lionel Asbo" may not have the expansive cast or tangled plot of "David Copperfield" or "Oliver Twist," but as the author hints through the occasional allusion, his refrains are Dickensian. As Des is to David is to Oliver, so Lionel Asbo is to Wilkins Micawber to Fagin, all three benighted "mentors" lacking the moral compass of their younger, wiser acolytes.

The owner of an "impenetrable mass of stolen property," Lionel is baffled by legitimate wealth. "His sole and devouring preoccupation since infancy," money, has been rendered "meaningless." The spendthrift Mr. Micawber cannot uphold the now famous principle his poor example demonstrates for David: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." The villainous miser, Fagin, sacrifices his pickpocket proteges to greed while hiding away the spoils of their labor, a treasure by which no one profits.

"Me challenge," Lionel concludes, is "to go from the floating world . . . to the heavy." In the "State of England" "nothing weighed, nothing counted and everything was allowed." An evanescent realm of hedonism where nothing has enough substance to be grounded by the laws of nature, the 'floating world' - or ukiyo, in the original Japanese - is hardly a new target for Amis. But whereas the grotesqueries of "Money" accrue the weight of tragedy, "Lionel Asbo" does not. Under its sordid costume, it's a simpler and far less troubling book, probably because John Self is a fully realized character while Lionel remains a caricature.

Fast forward from Edo period Japan to Diston Town, England; from geishas to sexy grannies who advertise their withered charms in the singles adverts; from naughty woodblock prints to 'Self-Esteem,' the lingerie line hawked by 'Threnody,' the would-be superstar whose avarice kindles her feigned affection for Lionel. So much for the human condition. There is no gravity; the center will not hold; the vantage of "Lionel Asbo" moves ever outward into the ever-expanding cosmos, from the "sun pinned into place, as firm as a gilt tack," to Mars and Mercury and on, to "surge through the asteroid belt to the gas giants, to Jupiter, to Saturn."

Earthbound Lionel tears from one mishap to the next in his Bentley Aurora through a land of 'brown dwarfs,' 'blue giants' and spasmodic 'flare stars,' where fame is measured in light-years. What's a hoodlum to do when his honorific is hijacked by a 2-year-old girl who beats his record as the youngest to garner an ASBO, in her case by swilling vodka, vandalizing property, stealing cash and biting social workers? No wonder a man needs bars to keep him in place. "When you in prison, you have you peace of mind," Lionel says.

Des's redemption issues from different institutions: university and matrimony. As it was for David Copperfield, education appears to Des as the 'harmony of the cosmos,' and his dedication to self-improvement grants him passage to a coherent world where his ability to love wins him a woman of good character. Dickens couldn't resist a name that carries meaning, and neither can Amis. In the end, David finds his way through Agnes, or 'purity,' to salvation. Des, emerging from darkness, arrives at Dawn.

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Des, aged 7, walking with his mother, 19, when they come across a drunk comatose on a park bench. Cilla realizes it's Des' father, but couldn't rouse him. "I wanted to ask him his name"

Cilla has older brothers John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart, but they are all afraid of their malevolent younger brother Lionel.

Lionel, post his win, thinks about boxing. But his trainer says "You got the aggression , son. But celebrity fighters never last. They ain't hungry enough, see. And your fame's like a red fucking rag to your opponent. So what's the point? Some ex-SAS trying to stove you nose in. And then you got all them papers next morning saying you a cunt. What's the point?"

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