That is the way Lionel is, a real lad: the tracksuit, the dogs, the beer hangovers, muscle-building as a lifestyle, awful diction and the innate tendency to do evil. Lionel hates people who yearn to learn, he believes in the annihilation of talent, and the only things he understands are extortion and violence. Lionel has been in and out prison all his life, of course: he is the habitual offender from a village on the outskirts of London, where the chances of leading a life that does not include premature marriage or brutal alcoholism are very slim.
Desmond Pepperdine, the other main character, is one of the few heroes who manage to escape the misery you are faced with in places like that. Desmond is Lionel’s nephew (although Lionel was always more like the father Des never had). He is a much more attractive character and his story represents a rather successful coming of age that begins when he and his aunt – Lionel’s mother – start seeing each other for something more than just tea. A death sentence if his uncle finds out, as Desmond is fully aware.
To add to all things, in a very Amis twist – the obsession with money and contemporary society -, Lionel wins the lottery between convictions and becomes a millionaire overnight. Nothing new: although the hooligan is dressed in silk, he is still the crazy felon he has always been, only now he is surrounded by luxury prostitutes and financial advisers, while he makes his way into the seedy paradise of the sensationalist press. In the satire Amis wants to ridicule the country that invented tabloid culture: the fact that any idiot is susceptible to becoming the country’s next subject for debate. It is something very English, but not exclusively English, as we well know around here. Amis, who moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, starts by talking about a rural and obscene England, and then switches to a more modern and sophisticated setting, though stupidity-inducing and empty. The state of England he wants us to try has a bitter taste. This is a novel that wants to be controversial, so it is not surprising that it is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens.
Despite some hilarious scenes with rich Lionel, it is Desmond who pulls the story forth and carries us to the ending. Desmond, the disobedient nephew who went to school and fell in love. Desmond, the obedient nephew who feeds his incarcerated uncle’s pit-bulls mainly Tabasco and who, years ago, failed to mind his own business. The novel is interestingly grotesque, there is brutality but also a little tenderness. Although it might appear close and personal for its author, this novel should not particularly stand out in his bibliography as a novelist.