Social mobility rent massive as eponymous anti-hero wins a 9 figure lotto jackpot whilst behind bars………………….
Amis doesn’t write about the middle classes, he writes for the middle classes; be it the comical or desperate grotesquerie of low England or the ridiculous, glacial privilege of the social elite, he is most comfortable describing the ends of the spectrum from the smugly plump middle.
In Lionel Asbo he manages to make these ends meet, although here he has replaced the double-barrelled Eton Bolly guzzler with the ubiquitous tabloid celebrity. Refreshing about this exercise is that it never dreams of boring you with a trite rags to riches story, in fact, the gold-plated vulgarity of both social extremes’ need to flaunt make this a sort of anti-Pygmalion.
Insightful and poisonous, Lionel is a dominating sketch in vicious pride, a product of a ghetto culture where 45 is old age and 3 generations are squeezed into every 2. There is lots to play with here but if it’s a character study then only Lionel and Desmond are brought out of farce and into focus. The supporting cast feel a lot like a Daily Mail pasquinade: the Jordanian pin-up girl made good and the assorted rathole villainy of London are straight from casting house. Better realised and sadly familiar are Lionel’s tabloid manipulations, the staged relationship, break-up, reconciliation, pregnancy, faked miscarriage and eventual split: there is no wisp of sympathy for the self made “panopticon” of celebrity here. Better still is the convincingly well drawn nephew, Desmond; kind, gentle, desperate to improve himself, he is one of only two sympathetic characters and, as our link to this world, he quickly shares with us a terrible secret, one which could prove fatal if his Uncle ever found out. It is this slow reveal that drives the story on, providing the backbone of cryogenic menace, the dark heart of sink-estate propinquity – does Lionel know? And if he does what won’t Lionel do?
The symbolism is effective, though not particularly subtle: the lift in the flats doesn’t work anymore, the tail-wagging puppies are abused into viciousness and the mansion is knowingly named “WormWood Scrubs”, despite this, the components never feel less than integral. Glorious literary flourishes pepper his descriptions of the highlife (being lived by a lowlife) and are shockingly offset by Lionel’s occasional cruelties, the jolt acting like a daylight mugging.
Any right minded person knows that Zoroastrianism, social meritocracy and karma all get kicked in the teeth by the national lottery twice a week but Amis doesn’t forget his Guardian reading audience, so this is not a hopeless book. The tender moments are not just there to provide light relief from the consequence-free Bullingdon style vandalism or the white noise of threat, as the well built denouement nears you realise just how delicate the threads of happiness are in forgotten England.