Huzzah for all those earnest tributes to Charles Dickens in this, the bicentennial of his birth year. But the best I've read — and the most savage fun — is Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis.
Not that Amis writes about Dickens in this satirical novel. Instead, he does what Dickens did: Lead us by way of laughter — not to mention engaging and/or dreadful characters and a ripping plot — to a deeper understanding of our world.
Amis sets his story in contemporary England and tells it with exuberantly profane language and an unflinching eye for bad behavior, especially of the sexual variety, that might have made the old Victorian himself shudder. But Dickens would feel right at home with the moral sensibility that lies at the core of the story.
There is a young hero, of course, an orphan who is sweet-natured and, against all odds given where he lives, naive. Desmond Pepperdine is just 15 as the book opens, and he has a problem: He's been seduced by his grandmother.
This is not a spoiler; you'll learn it on the first page, when Des imagines writing a letter to one of the "agony aunts" of the British press. (We call them advice columnists.) "On the plus-side, the age-gap is not that big," clueless Des imagines writing, since Grace, his gran, is only 39.
Here's the math: Grace got pregnant at 12 and had Des' mother, Cilla, who also got pregnant at 12. In Diston, the raucous, poverty-riddled London neighborhood where the Pepperdines live and "where calamity made its rounds like a postman," that family history is nothing out of the ordinary. Des himself is out of the ordinary only because he's biracial — his father was black, which is almost the only thing Cilla remembers about him.
Grace had six more kids before she was 19, naming five after the Beatles — John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (Sutcliffe, the "lost Beatle"). Out of Beatles, she named her last Lionel.
That would be the title character, who changed his last name when he turned 18 to coincide with the acronym for his psychiatric diagnosis, "Anti-Social Behaviour Order." (Apparently it's so common it's no longer a disorder.) Lionel was "served his first Restraining Directive when he was three . . . for smashing car windscreens with paving stones." It's a national record and a dire omen: Lionel grows up to be a cheerfully violent thug who lives way outside the law.
When Cilla dies in an absurd accident, Uncle Lionel takes Des to live in his flat on the 30th floor of Avalon Tower, a public housing hellhole, where he gives Des such avuncular advice as sticking to porn instead of having sex with real women, since it's much less trouble and cheaper.
The two share the flat with a pair of pit bulls Lionel uses in his work, feeding them mutton vindaloo and steak soaked with hot sauce, all washed down with whiskey, to keep them fierce. Lionel's dogs, who pass the time on a tiny balcony challenging nearby dogs with barks that sound to Des like "F--- off," have a hair-raising role to play.
As for Des and his gran: The affair ends quickly, but Lionel hears a rumor Grace may have a young boyfriend and explodes in rage. Desperate, Des casts suspicion on someone else — and the result will haunt him.
"Nothing really out of the ordinary happened between 2006 and 2009," Amis tells us economically, and then Lionel starts a brawl at his cousin's wedding by insulting the bride (one of his exes), leading to 90 arrests, almost a million pounds in damages to the hotel and a prison sentence for Lionel — who is always most comfortable in prison anyway.
While he's there, he wins the lottery, about 140 million pounds, a Dickensian twist of fate that changes everything and nothing. Lionel becomes an instant celebrity, dubbed "the Lotto Lout" by the tabloid press and followed everywhere after his release.
He's outside for three weeks, during which he spends 9 million pounds, mostly on gambling and prodigious bar bills, before he's sent back to prison for assaulting a police officer (among other charges). And it's there, his mind focused, that he blooms.
It turns out that Lionel's sociopathic personality makes him a fabulously successful money manager: "But his investments prospered almost uncontrollably right from the start. He instructed his young squad of free-market idealists to be as aggressive as possible," and his fortune explodes. When Des visits him in prison, they meet not in a noisy visiting room but "an administrative office apparently dedicated to Lionel's use" for consulting with his investment team.
In the meantime, Des has met a sunny blond named Dawn and married her despite her racist father's objections. Dawn breaks Pepperdine tradition by getting pregnant at 21 instead of 12, and the happy little family still lives in that flat at Avalon Towers, because Lionel hasn't shared any of his loot with his relatives. (Des has gone to college, but he's fixed on the outlandish idea of becoming a journalist, so his prospects are pretty limited.)
When Lionel is released from prison again, phenomenally richer than before, the novel shifts into overdrive. Amis has enormous fun with Lionel's attempts at playing the somewhat civilized celebrity, starting with his girlfriend "Threnody" — the quotation marks are part of her (fictitious) name, she insists — who is famous for being famous, although she does publish stuff she calls poetry. (Amis, it seems, based her on one Katie Price, a nobody this side of the pond but in the United Kingdom apparently worth a whole herd of Kardashians.) The pair buy a posh country estate and name it "Wormwood Scrubs," combining the name of his favorite prison with her favorite punctuation mark.
Amis craftily injects this extravaganza of social satire with a growing sense of dread as Lionel spins further out of control and Des begins to fear what he might know — and what he might do. Having spent the first two-thirds of the book laughing out loud, I spent the last third holding my breath and admiring Amis' dark arts, right up to the 21st century version of a Dickensian ending.
Amis has spent a lauded career dissecting British society, and Lionel Asbo: State of England adds to that acid ouevre. Word is he has recently moved to Brooklyn, and that he'll be in Tampa this week covering the Republican National Convention for Newsweek. Dickens always wanted to write an American novel but never did; perhaps Amis is gathering material, so look out.