Martin Amis gives heinous crime, sexual promiscuity, prison time and twisted family histories a rich new look in LIONEL ASBO: STATE OF ENGLAND. Desmond Pepperdine, 15 years old when the novel opens, has lived on the 33rd floor of the Avalon Towers with one of his uncles, Lionel Asbo, since his mother died three years earlier. His father had stayed just for the afternoon, and Des longs for good books, someone to murmur to, and release from a guilty past.
Part I opens with the unrelenting question, “Who let the dogs in? Who? Who? Who let the dogs in?” Parts II and III repeat the questions, and in the last pages of Part IV, we have at last the answer that had to wait because some things cannot happen until their time has come.
"[Amis'] exquisite insight into how we adapt and learn to wait is precise and beautiful. There are perfect sentences in each section that must be underlined, re-read and remembered."
Amis builds tension with the introduction of Lionel as the catalyst for obscenely grand gestures. He is a 21-year-old brute, always “one size bigger than expected” when he appears. His trade is debt collecting; he uses Jeff and Joe, his psychopathic pit bulls, in unknown but violent ways. His nickname, Mean Mr. Mustard, came early in childhood from a Beatles song, and his older brothers John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart were all afraid of their little brother. On his 18th birthday, Lionel Pepperdine became Lionel Asbo, which was chosen after many run-ins with the law beginning at age three years, two days for a serious attempt to torch a pet shop. He was so often diagnosed with ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) that he thought the acronym was a logical name choice. Des believes he could only do something that stupid after giving it a lot of very intelligent thought.
Des is afraid of Lionel while he still acknowledges that he would have nothing without him. He is seduced by his 39-year-old grandmother, and the resulting guilt and embarrassment eat at him. He writes to the local lovelorn column for advice and is told he and his gran are committing statutory rape with dire consequences. He is fearful that Lionel will find out after one of his classmates disappears because he visits the grandmother too often and is blamed, as Lionel says, for giving “mum one. And if you f**k my mum, there’s going to be consequences.”
Des’ life continues because he is intelligent and thoughtful. He attends university, falls in love with Dawn, and becomes a crime reporter for the local newspaper. His story remains intertwined with Lionel’s through necessity and geography, however, and he learns to be ever watchful and vigilant. Lionel’s advice for learning to drive --- overtake whenever you can, use the horn as often as possible, never stop at zebra crossings, amber always means go --- was quietly discounted, and Des passed the first time.
Lionel has the chance to change after winning 140,000,000 pounds on a lottery ticket, but the passions of his youth and the anger of what was done to his mum do not allow him movement toward substance and forgiveness. He reflects that the South Central Hotel where he is staying is hollow, hardly there. Everything was “light, the cutlery, the glassware, the furniture, even the bedclothes,” and at 24, Lionel appreciates weight but finds thinking meaningless. His excesses and explosions result in more prison time, bodily injury and renewed debts. At a local wedding, Lionel’s vulgar toast enflamed the 90 guests into 650,000 pounds of damages; it would later be called the massive “nuptial rumble,” and a long-standing feud and layers of accusations would surface again.
The third player in the novel is the city of Diston, whose citizens are rough and young and light. “Everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back.” The rawness of the city is personified by a young red-haired girl who climbs out of a pit of garbage bags, her skirt up around her halter top, and her freckled fists shaking two broken wine bottles. Its grittiness and courage, commendable and repulsive, is a fitting backdrop for the Pepperdine family.
Amis’ novel might seem too savage and rowdy at times, and the cast of characters impossible to believe, but his exquisite insight into how we adapt and learn to wait is precise and beautiful. There are perfect sentences in each section that must be underlined, re-read and remembered.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on September 14, 2012
Lionel Asbo: State of England