A social satire with a wickedly funny setup fails to sustain momentum and provide much of a payoff.
The latest from Amis (The Pregnant Widow, 2010, etc.) returns to familiar themes of British caste and culture, though rarely has his writing been so over-the-top or so steeped in the vernacular. This is the story of the ultimate dysfunctional family (through which the “State of England” subtitle invites the reader to extend the symbolism), where the title character is a hardened, perpetual criminal, a sociopath who prefers prison to the outside world and the pleasures of porn to the complications of relationships. He has taken his last name from the acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, and he has become “the anti-dad, the counterfather” to his nephew, Des, a teenage orphan only six years younger than Lionel. As the novel opens, the racially mixed Des is secretly involved in sexual relations with his grandmother (Lionel’s mother), though this isn’t quite as age-inappropriate as it is incestuously taboo, for both Des’ mother and grandmother began procreating when they were 12. The boy’s other uncles include John, Paul, George, Ringo and (for Beatle obsessives) Stu. Nothing subtle here, but much that’s outrageously funny. Des writes a letter to a newspaper advice columnist about his predicament, as Lionel rails about the “GILF” phenomenon that is dragging down “a once-proud nation. Look. Beefy Bedmate Sought by Bonking Biddy. That’s England.” Lionel becomes rich beyond all expectation by winning the lottery, Des disappoints him by maturing into a conventional and respectable family man, grandma suffers from some sort of early-onset dementia. The climax to which the novel builds is whether she’ll ever regain her wits and reveal the secret she shares with Des. All of this in a town where “everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back.”
An initially sharp satire turns tedious by midpoint.