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The Boston Phoenix Little Bites

Martin Amis's long-awaited new book leaves us hungry for more.

By Chris Wright

FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

HEAVY WATER AND OTHER STORIES; by Martin Amis. Harmony Books, 208 pages, $21.

Sex is a lot like pizza, goes a wry modern-day saying. Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. The same could certainly be said of Martin Amis. At his very worst, Amis does the business between the sheets better than most of his peers. Problem is, he hasn't been putting out much lately.

In the four years since his backpack strap-snapping epic The Information was roundly panned by critics, Amis has published just two books: last year's slim cosmological murder mystery Night Train and his new book of short stories, the equally slim Heavy Water and Other Stories. In some sense, then, Heavy Water is an unsatisfying collection. Its nine stories span 23 years (though seven were written in the '90s), and only one -- "The Coincidence of the Arts" -- has never been published before.

But we take what we can get, and we get Martin Amis in all his stripes in this book. There are flashes of the stylistic brilliance, inspired quippery, and pithy observation that have made Amis the most celebrated satirist of his generation. There's the hilarity born of violence, ambition, class antagonism, and physical malformity. There's a bit of the cosmological rumination that has marked some of Amis's later work. There are some unexpected moments of tenderness. And there are many clever conceits before which such trifles as plot and character merrily capitulate.

For instance, a couple of stories in the book offer up switcheroos, reversals of the accepted order of things. The first story, "Career Move," tells the parallel tales of Alistair, a feckless screenwriter, and Luke, a dazzlingly successful poet. The tussle of success and failure, a recurring theme in Amis's work, gets a novel twist as Alistair struggles to get his sensational screenplays published in obscure journals like Little Magazine, while Luke jets back and forth across the Atlantic to negotiate deals for his latest blockbuster, "Sonnet."

Part of the delight of this story arises from its spot-on satire, the way it highlights the gulf between aesthetic and commercial accomplishment. But even more appealing is the flat-out silliness and the incongruity of its conversations:

Luke said, "What's 'A Welshman to Any Tourist' doing?"
Don said, "It's doing good but not great."
Ron said, "It won't do what 'The Gap in the Hedge' did."
Jim said, "What did 'Hedge' do?"

Less triumphant is the turnabout Amis pulls in "Straight Fiction," a story that imagines the way the world be if homosexuality were the norm. While there are some funny moments (an actor is outed by a tabloid as being TOTALLY HET and ROARING STRAIGHT), the vein of humor underlying the conceit is soon exhausted. Further, Amis often seems to be poking fun at gay life -- which he represents as a burlesque of bristling mustaches, fishnet tank tops, compulsive body-building, and serial sex -- rather than taking homophobia to the cleaners.

But Amis has never been renowned for his political sensitivity. In "The Coincidence of the Arts" he writes, "No black shape -- no roller or mugger, no prison-yard rapist, no Hutu warrior, no incensed Maroon on the blazing cane fields of Saint Domingue -- could be as fearful to Rodney, now, as the man who occasionally guarded his building. . . . " Rodney is an English upper-class twit living in New York. The man of whom he is afraid is Pharsin Courier, a "deeply black" doorman with literary pretensions who has given Rodney a hefty manuscript: "I need your critique."

When Rodney isn't studiously avoiding Pharsin, he's pontificating on race ("I suppose you can't get much less posh than a slave") and having an affair with the doorman's wife. This is some of the book's most biting satire, and a rare instance of Amis successfully lampooning the English upper classes. Rarer yet, Amis allows his character a sort of final redemption, over "a tragic tea of crustless sandwiches in a dark café near Victoria Station."

Given Amis's reputation for smirking satire, Heavy Water contains a surprising amount of pathos. In the book's title story, a woman and her mentally retarded adult son go on an ill-fated holiday cruise. Though Amis can't resist taking potshots at the bingo-playing, pint-swilling plebeians on board, he also develops a complex and melancholy relationship between mother and son.

Amis has a brush with tragedy in the book's final story, "What Happened to Me on My Holiday," an account of the real-life death of a family friend. The story is narrated by a young boy (Amis's son) in a mock American accent, with a preposterous phonetic spelling scheme throughout (Cape Cod becomes "Gabe Gad," totally becomes "dodally," and so on). A shameless contrivance, yes -- yet rather than diminishing the poignancy of the boy's struggle to make sense of the death, the struggle we must overcome to make sense of what he's saying actually heightens the experience. It's a virtuoso turn by Amis, and a sign that the author's trademark glib pessimism may be developing a few chinks.

The best piece in the book, "The State of England," returns to more-familiar Amis territory. The story revolves around a bouncer named Big Mal. Mal, we are told, is "built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions." He's also sporting a nasty gash on his cheek, which is making his appearance at his son's track meet a painful and awkward affair ("What did Mal's appearance say?").

Although he is a time-honored Amis thug, there is something different about Mal. He's a man desperately trying to find a place for himself in the new Britain, a man of cell phones and pricey suits who sends his son (named Jet) to expensive schools, who has interracial flings, who likes to believe he has crawled out of the primordial slime of the yob class into a classless society. What makes Mal such an affecting figure, though, is that he also knows this to be an impossibility: "Big Mal, who grunted with a kind of assent when he saw a swung fist coming for his mouth, could nonetheless be laid out by a cocked pinkie." Clearly, Amis has not joined the rest of Britain in its communal rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again."

But Amis hasn't finished with Mal yet. The gash on his cheek, we learn, is the result of a drubbing he and his partner in crime, Fat Lol, took the previous night, delivered by a gang of upper-class opera-goers. "A revolution in reverse -- that's what it was like," Mal laments. "Two bum-crack cowboys scragged and cudgeled by the quality." It's a wicked twist, a sublime instance of poetic injustice. Denied assimilation, or even the dominion of physical violence, there's no refuge for the likes of Mal in modern society.

Incisive, funny, and poignant: this is Amis at his best, and at his best there is simply no one who can touch him. And yet we're not satisfied. We want more. Begging for it.


Chris Wright is the associate editor of Stuff@Night.


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