Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

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Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: When the violent thug, Lionel Asbo wins the lottery while serving time in prison, life changes for him, but his ward and nephew remains in dread fear of his uncle finding out about his affair with Lionel's mother. This was probably more fun to write than to read, but is saved by some delicious Amis touches.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780224096201

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Martin Amis can be relied upon to create some pretty nasty, self-centred central characters. Usually they are upper class cads and bounders but in Lionel Asbo his central character is at the polar opposite in terms of class. He's violent, uncouth and ignorant. He's a criminal whose usual sidekicks are a pair of vicious pit bulls. His 'manner' is a fictitious down trodden area of London called Diston Town where he lives in a tower block with his nephew, Des, who in fact is the central character in the book. Des, in contrast is far more sympathetic - intelligent and kind, that is if you overlook the fact that as a 15 year old he had an affair with his grandmother, Lionel's mother. Hey, no one's perfect.

While serving time at Her Majesty's pleasure, Lionel manages to win the lottery which he promptly spends on alcohol, women and a huge house, but you can take the yob out of Diston but you cannot take Diston out of the yob. Despite unfailing loyalty to his uncle, Lionel doesn't share any of this wealth with Des, or indeed any of his family. Des remains in fear that one day Lionel will discover his past with his grandmother, knowing that Lionel's violence will know no bounds. Meanwhile Lionel hooks up with 'Threnody' (the inverted commas are part of her name), a sort of Katie Price-type character. She is an excellent creation, but as so often with Amis, the author isn't particularly strong on females and she remains frustratingly on the periphery of things.

One gets the impression that Amis had great fun writing this book. It's a fairly light and breezy read, but even for Amis, the story is unusually viscous and nasty. Quite where Des gets his relatively good qualities from is a bit of mystery in the world he lives. The book is grandly sub-titled State of England although it is so unremittingly nasty that even the most pessimistic would question to what extent this can be claimed. Yes, it violently has a stab at those who are famous for being famous, but while Amis usually focusses on upper class rogues, here there is never any great sense that this reflects real life to any extent. In fact the portrayal of the main characters seems to be drawn more from the Daily Mail's coverage of the stories like Dale Farm. The result is that there is an unfortunate tendency to come over as rather sneering, which in turn reduces the impact of the story somewhat.

Yet for all that, there are moments of pure Amis class in the writing. He has a fine ear for conversation and some of his descriptions of atmospheres are superb. I found myself smiling more at these than at the comic moments in the story though. This is largely my problem with the book: it's well constructed and often told with great skill, but the story itself is not particularly edifying or enlightening. Ultimately, Lionel Asbo is too much of a caricature and not enough of a character, while Des is more of a rounded character, but I just didn't believe in him in the context of his environment. I had the feeling that the best medium for Lionel would have been the pages of Viz rather than a Martin Amis novel. It also suffers from a slightly fizzled ending but endings have never been an Amis forte in my view.

It's probably a book that will neither convert readers who dislike Amis or disappoint those who love his caustic style. For me though, he feels more at home with the upper-middle classes than in the bargain basement. There's no denying that he does have a terrific turn of phrase though and this just about rescues this book for me.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Jonathan Cape for sending us this book. We also have a review of Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.

For more varied London-based state of the nation fare, Capital by John Lanchester is thought provoking and touches on some similar areas while for more imaginative urban dystopia, City of Bohane by Kevin Barry is riotously innovative stylish and funny.

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