Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle In Person

By Barbara Strickland

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

Martin Amis at Book People

At first, there was something dubious about the idea of Martin Amis touring behind Night Train - a relatively slender detective story. In fact, Night Train is so short and genre-specific it feels a lot like a side project - like Michael Jordan's golf game or Johnny Depp's musical career. And not only has Night Train been almost universally panned for lack of plot and some ultra-sketchy character development, but it's also a decidedly dark beginning, says Amis, as "a noir thriller" ending with "Camus as Elmore Leonard." In what Amis calls a "meditation on suicide," the action is purely psychological. Aloud, it would appear to be a tough read. Worse yet, conventional wisdom had it that what looked like a mildly clever device in print - a protagonist, Mike Hoolihan, cast against name as a female detective - could lose a little something in Amis' live translation. In fact, Amis recently chose Linda Hamilton to present the audiobook. But just 10 minutes into his February 2 Book People presentation it was obvious that to doubt the success of this reading was to doubt Amis' almost sole key to success - his voice.

As much as Night Train is an exercise in genre, it's an exercise for Amis' voice. For some, that Hoolihan is a female American detective who happens to speak exactly like the British author Martin Amis represents Night Train's inherent illegitimacy. For others, it is singular proof of Amis' range and his book-to-book consistency. The latter theory couldn't help but prevail at this reading, as it was so hard to distinguish between Night Train's excerpts and Amis' commentaries. At one point, Amis read, "I have seen bodies left dead so long your only shot at a t.o.d. [time of death] is to weigh the maggots." Not long after, he commented, "It's an honor to be in your country... as spattered cocktail dresses are seized by the feds." One speaker is Hoolihan and the other Amis, but the rhythm and attention to detail is virtually unwavering. Unless you look up and see Amis pull away from the book, character and author are indistinguishable.

Unfortunately, Amis' reading was not unlike a trailer so busy that it renders the movie obsolete. Because for all the witty insights and colorful vignettes Amis cherry-picked for the reading, Night Train's trite plot and negligible quest for a conclusion still make it Amis' least compelling read. In fact, one reader judiciously used an otherwise casual but candid Q&A to ask Amis if there was anything in Night Train he wished he'd done better. To that, Amis admitted Hoolihan would have been more authentic had she alluded to "windshields" rather than "windscreens." Maybe so. But it's still a distinction not nearly as grand as the disparity between the effectiveness of Amis' appearance and of the book he came to promote. - Andy Langer


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