This is a tricky novel to review, as it had elements I both loved and hated. I know it has generated some strong reviews on both sides of the divide, and I would recommend that people read it with a measure of open-mindedness, a sense of humor, patience—and perhaps a dictionary of British slang in hand. And if you are easily offended, this book is not for you.
This is the story of the title character Lionel, an amoral thug from a low-class dystopic London (dubbed Diston in the novel) who rampages his way through the novel causing the reader to cringe at every turn. He makes his living as a “debt collector” with the help of two alcohol-and-Tabasco-fueled pit bulls, earned his anti-social behavior order (ASBO; get it?) at the tender age of 3, and views his regular stints in jail as moments of calm where “at least you know where you are.” Women are an unknowable source of angst, friends can’t be trusted, and the future doesn’t exist for the likes of Lionel. Money is all.
Our anti-hero is the youngest of 7 dysfunctional offspring from a variety of disappearing fathers, whose promiscuous mother Grace finished her baby-making by age 19, and then began a slow slide into dementia. Her daughter Cilla is dead at the start of the novel, and Cilla’s 15-year-old mixed-race son is being “raised” by Uncle Lionel, just six years his senior. The best advice “Uncle Li” can offer his nephew Desmond is to learn to use a knife and to choose porn over sex. However, Des yearns to find true love, to go to college, and is teaching himself languages and philosophy in between driving cabs to help defray costs.
The lonely Des gets seduced into having sex with his 39-year-old “grandmum,” and the rest of the novel is overlaid with his terror over how the murderous Lionel will respond to this when it ultimately comes out. But before that can happen, Lionel hits a lotto jackpot, winning himself a vast fortune which both gives him license to gratify his every low desire and simultaneously takes away his raison d’etre. Lionel disappears into celebrity nightmare, is captured by a gold-digger smarter than him, and is pursued and mocked at every turn by the sensationalist media. We follow Lionel’s descent into hell—hysterically funny at times and yet painfully sad and often horrific at others—along with the simultaneous evolution of Des’ relationship with his lover Dawn into marriage, and eventual fatherhood.
Amis’ novel has been described by some as a sort of Dickensian commentary on the decline of the social order in which we live, and I found that when I managed to decipher the sometimes unintelligible British slang and get past the sometimes unnecessarily grotesque scenes, there was penetrating satire here definitely worth the slog.