A savage, funny, and mysteriously poignant saga by a renowned author at the height of his powers.
Lionel Asbo, a terrifying yet weirdly loyal thug (self-named after England's notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Order), has always looked out for his ward and nephew, the orphaned Desmond Pepperdine. He provides him with fatherly career advice (always carry a knife, for example) and is determined they should share the joys of pit bulls (fed with lots of Tabasco sauce), Internet porn, and all manner of more serious criminality. Des, on the other hand, desires nothing more than books to read and a girl to love (and to protect a family secret that could be the death of him). But just as he begins to lead a gentler, healthier life, his uncle—once again in a London prison—wins £140 million in the lottery and upon his release hires a public relations firm and begins dating a cannily ambitious topless model and “poet.” Strangely, however, Lionel's true nature remains uncompromised while his problems, and therefore also Desmond's, seem only to multiply.
About the Author
MARTIN AMIS is the author of twelve previous novels, the memoir Experience, two collections of stories and six of nonfiction, most recently The Second Plane. He lives in Brooklyn.
Date of Birth:August 25, 1949
Place of Birth:Oxford, England
Education:B.A., Exeter College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
2006 Desmond Pepperdine, Renaissance Boy
I’m having an affair with an older woman. Shes’ a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra for example, or Chanel.) The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!
Desmond Pepperdine (Desmond, Des, Desi), the author of this document, was fifteen and a half. And his handwriting, nowadays, was self-consciously elegant; the letters used to slope backward, but he patiently trained them to slope forward; and when everything was smoothly conjoined he started adding little flourishes (his e was positively ornate—like a w turned on its side). Using the computer he now shared with his uncle, Des had given himself a course on calligraphy, among several other courses.
On the plus-side, the age-difference is surprisingly
He crossed that bit out, and resumed.
It started a fort-night ago when she rang up and said its the plumbing again love. And I said nan? I’ll be right over. She lives in a granny flat under a house about a mile away and theres allways some thing wrong with it’s plumbing. Now I’m no plumber but I learnd a bit from my Uncle George whose in the trade. I sorted it out for her and she said why not stay for a few drink’s?
Calligraphy (and sociology, and anthropology, and psychology), but not yet punctuation. He was a good little speller, Des, but he knew how weak his punctuation was because he had just begun a course on it. And punctuation, he (quite rightly) intuited, was something of an art.
So we had a few Dubonnet’s which I’m not used to, and she was giving me these funny look’s. She’s all ways got the Beatles’ on and she was playing all the slow one’s like Golden Slumber’s, Yester-day, and Sh’es Leaving Home. Then gran says its so hot I’ll just slip in to my night-dress. And she came back in a babydoll!
He was trying to give himself an education—not at Squeers Free, recently singled out, he read in the Diston Gazette, as the worst school in England. But his understanding of the planet and the universe had inconceivable voids in it. He was repeatedly amazed by the tonnage of what he didn’t know.
So we had a few more drink’s, and I was noticing how well preserved she is. She’s taken good care of herself and shes really fit considering the life shes’ led. So after a few more drink’s she says are’nt you frying alive in that blazer? Come over here handsome, and give us a cuddle! Well what could I do. She put her hand on my thigh and slid it up my short’s. Well I’m only human aren’t I? The stereo was playing I Should Of Known Better—but one thing lead to another, and it was mind blowing!
For instance, the only national newspaper Des had ever read was the Morning Lark. And Jennaveieve, his addressee, was its agony aunt—or better say its ecstasy aunt. The page she presided over consisted of detailed accounts of perhaps wholly imaginary liaisons, and her replies consisted of a lewd pun followed by an exclamation mark. Desmond’s tale was not imaginary.
Now you must believe me that this is all very “out of character.” It was never mean’t to be! Okay we live in Diston, where that sort of thing isnt much frownd up on. And, okay my Gran had a mischivous youth. But she’s a respectable woman. The thing is shes got a big birthday coming up and I reckon its turnd her head. As for myself, my background is strict christian at least on my fathers side (Pentecostalist.) And you see Jennaveieve, I’ve been very unhappy since my Mum, Cilla passed away three year’s ago. I can’t find the word’s. I needed gentleness. And when gran touched me like that. Well.
Des had no intention of actually mailing his letter to Jennaveieve (whose partly naked body also adorned the page headed, not Ecstasy Aunt, but Agony Angel). He was writing it simply to ease his own mind. He imagined Jennaveieve’s dependably non-judgemental reply. Something like: At least you’re having a Gran old time! Des wrote on.
Apart from the legal question which is worrying me sick, theres another huge problem. Her son, Lionel is my uncle, and hes’ like a father to me when he’s not in prison. See hes an extremely violent criminal and if he find’s out I’m giving his Mum one, hell fucking kill me. Litrally!
It might be argued that this was a grave underestimation of Lionel’s views on trespass and reprisal . . . The immediate goal, for Des, was to master the apostrophe. After that, the arcana of the colon and the semicolon, the hyphen, the dash, the slash.
On the plus-side, the age-gap is not that big. See Granny Grace was an early starter, and fell pregnant when she was 12, just like my M
He heard the thick clunks of the locks, he looked with horror at his watch, he tried to stand upright on deadened legs—and suddenly Lionel was there.
Lionel was there, a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the thirty-third floor—but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon). Under his other arm he was carrying a consignment of lager. Two dozen, covered in polythene. Brand: Cobra.
“You’re back early, Uncle Li.”
He held up a callused palm. They waited. In his outward appearance Lionel was brutally generic—the slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble. Out in the great world city, there were hundreds of thousands of young men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo. In certain lights and settings he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney: not exceptionally tall, and not fat, but exceptionally broad and exceptionally deep (Des saw his uncle every day—and Lionel was always one size bigger than expected). He even had Rooney’s gap-toothed smile. Well, the upper incisors were widely spaced, yet Lionel very seldom smiled. You only saw them when he sneered.
“ . . . What you doing there with that pen? What’s that you writing? Guiss it.”
Des thought fast. “Uh, it’s about poetry, Uncle Li.”
“Poetry?” said Lionel and started back.
“Yeah. Poem called The Faerie Queene.”
“The what? . . . I despair of you sometimes, Des. Why aren’t you out smashing windows? It’s not healthy. Oh yeah, listen to this. You know that bloke I bashed up in the pub the other Friday? Mr. ‘Ross Knowles,’ if you please? He’s only pressing charges. Grassed me. Would you credit it.”
Desmond knew how Lionel was likely to feel about such a move. One night last year Lionel came home to find Des on the black leatherette sofa, innocently slumped in front of Crimewatch. The result was one of the longest and noisiest slappings he had ever received at his uncle’s hands. They asking members of the public, said Lionel, standing in front of the giant screen with his arms akimbo, to fink on they own neighbours. Crimewatch, it’s like a . . . like a programme for paedophiles, that is. It disgusts me. Now Des said,
“He went to the law? Aw, that’s . . . That’s . . . the lowest of the low, that is. What you going to do, Uncle Li?”
“Well I’ve been asking around and it turns out he’s a loner. Lives in a bedsit. So there’s no one I can go and terrify. Except him.”
“But he’s still in hospital.”
“So? I’ll take him a bunch of grapes. You feed the dogs?”
“Yeah. Only we’re out of Tabasco.”
The dogs, Joe and Jeff, were Lionel’s psychopathic pitbulls. Their domain was the narrow balcony off the kitchen, where, all day, the two of them snarled, paced, and swivelled—and prosecuted their barking war with the pack of Rottweilers that lived on the roof of the next high-rise along.
“Don’t lie to me, Desmond,” said Lionel quietly. “Don’t ever lie to me.”
“You told me you fed them. And you never give them they Tabasco!”
“Uncle Li, I didn’t have the cash! They’ve only got the big bottles and they’re five ninety-five!”
“That’s no excuse. You should’ve nicked one. You spent thirty quid, thirty quid, on a fucking dictionary, and you can’t spare a couple of bob for the dogs.”
“I never spent thirty quid! . . . Gran give it me. She won it on the crossword. The prize crossword.”
“Joe and Jeff—they not pets, Desmond Pepperdine. They tools of me trade.”
Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the very hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved “selling on” (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset). Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion With Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for . . . He stood there, Lionel, doing something he was very good at: disseminating tension. Des loved him deeply and more or less unquestioningly (I wouldn’t be here today without Uncle Li, he often said to himself). But he always felt slightly ill in his presence. Not ill at ease. Ill.
“. . . You’re back early, Uncle Li,” he repeated as airily as he could. “Where you been?”
“Cynthia. I don’t know why I bestir meself. Gaa, the state of that Cynthia.”
The spectral blonde called Cynthia, or Cymfia, as he pronounced it, was the nearest thing Lionel had to a childhood sweetheart, in that he started sleeping with her when she was ten (and Lionel was nine). She was also the nearest thing he had to a regular girlfriend, in that he saw her regularly—once every four or five months. Of women in general, Lionel sometimes had this to say: More trouble than they worth, if you ask me. Women? I’m not bothered. I’m not bothered about women. Des thought that this was probably just as well: women, in general, should be very pleased that Lionel wasn’t bothered about them. One woman bothered him—yes, but she bothered everyone. She was a promiscuous beauty named Gina Drago . . .
“Des. That Cynthia,” said Lionel with a surfeited leer. “Christ. Even uh, during the uh, you know, during the other, I was thinking, Lionel, you wasting you youth. Lionel, go home. Go home, boy. Go home and watch some decent porn.”
Des picked up the Mac and got smartly to his feet. “Here. I’m off out anyway.”
“Yeah? Where? Seeing that Alektra?”
“Nah. Meet up with me mates.”
“Well do something useful. Steal a car. Eh, guess what. You Uncle Ringo won the Lottery.”
“He never. How much?”
“Twelve pounds fifty. It’s a mug’s game, the Lottery, if you ask me. Oy. I’ve been meaning to ask you something. When you creep off at night . . .”
Des was standing there holding the Mac in both hands, like a waiter with a tray. Lionel was standing there with the Cobras in both hands, like a drayman with a load.
“When you creep off at night, you carry a blade?”
“Uncle Li! You know me.”
“Well you should. For you own security. And you peace of mind. You going to get youself striped. Or worse. There’s no fistfights any more, not in Diston. There’s only knife fights. To the death. Or guns. Well,” he relented, “I suppose they can’t see you in the fucking dark.”
And Des just smiled with his clean white teeth.
“Take a knife from the drawer on you way out. One of them black ones.”
Des didn’t meet up with his mates. (He didn’t have any mates. And he didn’t want any mates.) He crept off to his gran’s.
As we know, Desmond Pepperdine was fifteen. Grace Pepperdine, who had led a very demanding life and borne many, many children, was a reasonably presentable thirty-nine. Lionel Asbo was a heavily weathered twenty-one.
. . . In dusty Diston (also known as Diston Town or, more simply, Town), nothing—and no one—was over sixty years old. On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women). And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple—or per single mother). Thus the age structure in Diston was strangely shaped. But still: Town would not be thinning out.
Des was fifteen. Lionel was twenty-one. Grace was thirty-nine . . .
He bent to unlatch the gate, he skipped down the seven stone steps, he knocked the knocker. He listened. Here came the shuffle of her fluffy slippers, and in the background (as ever) the melodic purity of a Beatles song. Her all-time favourite: “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Dawn simmered over the incredible edifice—the stacked immensity of Avalon Tower.
On the curtained balcony (the size of a tight parking space), Joe lay dreaming of other dogs, enemy dogs, jewel-eyed hellhounds. He barked in his sleep. Jeff rolled over with a blissful sigh.
In bedroom number one (the size of a low-ceilinged squash court, with considerable distances between things, between the door and the bed, between the bed and the wardrobe, between the wardrobe and the free-standing swing mirror), Lionel lay dreaming of prison and his five brothers. They were all in the commissary, queuing for Mars Bars.
And in bedroom number two (the size of a generous four-poster), Des lay dreaming of a ladder that rose up to heaven.
Day came. Lionel left early with Joe and Jeff (business). Des dreamed on.
For six or seven months now he had been sensing it: the pangs and quickenings of intelligence within his being. Cilla, Des’s mother, died when he was twelve, and for three years he entered a kind of trance, a leaden sleep; all was numb and Mumless . . . Then he woke up.
He started keeping a diary—and a notebook. There was a voice in his head, and he listened to it and he talked to it. No, he communed with it, he communed with the whispers of his intelligence. Did everybody have one, an inner voice? An inner voice that was cleverer than they were? He thought probably not. Then where did it come from?
Des looked to his family tree—to his personal Tree of Knowledge.
Well, Grace Pepperdine, Granny Grace, had not attended all that closely to her education, for obvious reasons: she was the mother of seven children by the age of nineteen. Cilla came first. All the rest were boys: John (now a plasterer), Paul (a foreman), George (a plumber), Ringo (unemployed), and Stuart (a seedy registrar). Having run out of Beatles (including the “forgotten” Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe), Grace exasperatedly christened her seventh child Lionel (after a much lesser hero, the choreographer Lionel Blair). Lionel Asbo, as he would later become, was the youngest of a very large family superintended by a single parent who was barely old enough to vote.
What People are Saying About This
“Despite a time frame that gallops forward into 2013 and a wealth of irresistibly hyperbolized pop cultural references, Lionel Asbo is at heart an old-fashioned novel, earnest in its agenda... a theme familiar to the audience of Amis's forebear, Dickens: the corrupting influence of money... Amis is, like Dickens, an insistently moral writer, satire being an edifying genre with a noble cause: the improvement of society.” —Kathryn Harris, The New York Times Book Review (front page)
“One of Amis's funniest novels —in a league with ‘Money’ and ‘London Fields.’ Amis, like his heroes Nabokov and Bellow, writes exuberant, ecstatic prose. His ear is precisely tuned, and his sentences—in narration and dialogue—are lethal. Our hero is a thug named Asbo (for Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a brilliant sociopath who delivers beatings for sport and feeds Tabasco to his pit bulls to make them extra-ornery in the morning. (Reader alert: Asbo delivers the most hilarious wedding speech in the history of English literature.) He sort of raises his nephew, an ambitious lad who happens to be sleeping with Grandmum. Mid-book, Asbo wins the lottery, a Dickensian turn of fortune that not only leads to some unforgettable comic opportunities but deepens matters as well. The jokes, the high-voltage sentences—all that energy—begin to drive an increasingly complicated machine.” —The New Yorker
“Lionel Asbo bears a strong resemblance to the trio of novels (Money, London Fields, The Information) that made Amis’ reputation. Like them, it is a satirical work whose subject is what Delmore Schwarz called ‘the scrimmage of appetite,’ and has an elaborate plot, a series of brilliant set pieces and a matchless sense of the contemporary demotic. But Lionel Asbo maybe be even better than these ambitious works of fiction, more disciplined, funnier and more inventive.... To say that it is a return to form is an understatement—it might be his finest work.” –John Broening, The Denver Post
“In his 13th novel—one of his most compulsively readable—wily, dead-on satirist and consummate artist Martin Amis is grandly acerbic, funny and unnerving.... He leads us on, shakes us up, knocks us down, brushes us off, then does it all over again...nimbly delivers stinging surprises, startling turnarounds, bludgeoning moments of horror and eked-out triumphs... Without hobbling the story, he takes on what are, in fact, universal concerns... With crisp insights, rollicking storytelling and acrobatic wit, Amis has created a peppery, topsy-turvy Pygmalion fable and hilarious dismantlement of our cherished rags-to-riches fantasy.” —Donna Seaman, Kansas City Star
“Little fiction is more entertaining than Martin Amis at his pithy best. His latest novel posits plenty of pith and cutting cultural criticism. It is wild. It is whacked. [It] swings between wildly funny and harshly real.” —Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Amis pumps his novel full of heart and warmth, providing an unexpected reward for readers.” —People
"Lionel Asbo crackles with brilliant prose and scathing satire [and is] savagely funny... So who could predict that, from this deliciously nasty setup, an author the New York Times once called 'fiction's angriest writer' would craft a novel so... Dickensian, a novel with such... I hate to even say it...heart... What follows is hilarious and strangely compelling—a gleefully twisted Great Expectations... Amis adopts a big, playful storytelling voice in this book. He riffs like a jazz master, in and out of vernacular, with brief gusts of description, all driven by a tight bass line of suspense." —Jess Walter, Publishers Weekly
“Amis’ portrait of someone who feeds Tabasco-splashed meat to his pit bulls in order to enrage them and toughen them up is surprisingly tender. Through Asbo, Amis explores the isolation and dislocation that comes with the shattering of old bonds and the manufacture of new ones due to spectacular accession to celebrity status…. Fond, too, is Amis’ approach to Asbo’s mixed-race nephew, who serves as the vehicle for the moral conclusion of what in form is in fact not satire but a fairytale. Des Pepperdine is an autodidact who escapes the cycle of crime and violence that plagues Diston Town—Amis’ fictional London hood where ‘everything hated everything else’—by doing well in school, going to college and landing a job… Amis’ plea would seem to be that nobody is beyond redemption, no matter what their circumstance.” —Liam Hoare, The Daily Beast
"A ripper of a story, in the Dickens mode... the novel mingles in genuine characters with the usual comedic grotesques, and is tender, almost earnest, in its emotions.... Amis is the most original sentence-writer in English." —Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail
"Technically brilliant, dazzling in style, manic in energy and driven by a narrative momentum impossible to resist... The novel is full of Amis' trademark virtuoso prose and wit." —Michel Basilieres, The Toronto Star
“The Amis energy is intact. As is the Amis gift for aperçus… There’s no formula for this sort of writing. It simply comes out of the same pot miracles do.” —Daniel Asa Rose, Barnes and Noble Review
“Amis's language is electric, his wit as sharp and precise than it has been in a decade, and Lionel Asbo has a savage, post-apocalyptic feel.” —David Daley, USA Today
“Amis’ phenomenal vim and versatility, anchoring roots in English literature, and gift for satire power this hilariously Dickensian, nerve-racking, crafty, bull’s eye tale of a monster and a mensch…This deliciously shivery, sly, and taunting page-turner provokes a fresh assessment of the poverty of place, mind, and spirit and the wondrous blossoming of against-all-odds goodness.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“Lionel Asbo becomes, incredibly, an imaginatively cautionary account of what we’ve become and a surprisingly (especially from Amis) hopefully illustration of what we can be.” —Steve Whitton, Anniston Star
“An acidic satire on contemporary England by one of that country’s most controversial and caustic wits [with an] energetic, funny, idiosyncratic and biting use of language, here used to brilliant effect.” —Karen Virag, The Edmonton Journal
"A masterpiece of social satire and cultural observation...fine, caustic, funny, angry and outrageous.” –Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle
“[Set in] the kind of place a 21st-century Dickens might conjure up, ‘where calamity made its rounds like a postman.’ ... Deploying his accomplished satirical gifts with surgical skill, Amis delivers a grimly humorous portrayal [of] the sometimes inexplicable bonds that tie family members to each other and the ways we can love against all our better instincts... With wit and style, Martin Amis shows us that money changes everything and nothing." —Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness
“As combative and as vicious as ever, Amis skewers the noughties as cruelly, as inventively and with as much screwy black comedy as his Money did the Eighties.” —Olivia Cole, GQ UK
“Amis's funniest and most satisfying novel in years—the book's comedy [lashed] with a serious dose of menace... his warmest book—and also his most authentically chilling... Among its other surprises, Lionel Asbo delivers the most compelling plot Amis has crafted.” —David Free, The Australian
"A joy— and strangely life-affirming... It certainly has much of the dazzling prose that made his earlier works so stand-out. As ever he makes the dreadful funny, the grotesque poetic. But there's something else, a tenderness and humanity... Amis seems to have affection for all his characters [in what] could be seen as a meditation on social mobility... Though it satirises a society in decline it is also, in the end, a story about the triumph of education over ignorance, love over hate." —Carole Midgley, The Times [U.K.]
“A surprisingly tender story… For all its scabrous humour, this is at heart an old-fashioned tale in which goodness may still find a way to triumph.” —The Daily Mail [U.K.]
“The novel comes at you and comes at you and keeps on coming. It never flags… It is a great big confidence trick of a novel—an attack that turns into an embrace—a book that looks at us, laughs at us, looks at us harder, closer, and laughs at us harder and still more savagely. It is every inch the novel that we all deserve.” – Nicola Barker, The Guardian [U.K.]
“A wicked satire [and] frequently wincingly funny. Amis’s aim at the totems and mores of common fame is as unerring, and his phrase-making as pyrotechnically dazzling, as ever…Amis also writes with real – and uncharacteristic – tenderness.” – Mick Brown, The Telegraph [U.K.]
“Martin Amis has let himself go at last, [with] the broadest comedy he has ever published… Amis’s delight in the incorrigible is genuinely Dickensian.” —David Sexton, Evening Standard [U.K.]
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Gotta love Amis, he's done it again, too weird, too funny!
I bought it because Barnes and Noble recommended it. A complete waste of money...
One word, "awful"! Doesn't deserve the one star a had to rate in order to post this review. I am on page 50 and can not torture myself any longer by reading this rubbish!!!!!!
I have failed to finish only 2 books in my life, this was the third. I thought it was terrible. Would rather read the Sun.
You not only do not care about any of the characters, you dislike most and hate the main character and want him to die. Plus, you cannot even understand 20% of what they are saying because of the low-life accent/way they talk. Could not finish it.
Very good. Fast read. Really funny. Buy it now.
In this novel, Martin Amis holds our world in his hands, thrashes it around and then hits us upside our heads with it. Bam! Pow! He masterfully makes us sympathize with an ASBO, makes us hope for the best for him, hope he'll use his powers for good and not evil. And, then, when Lionel doesn't, we're...dare I say it...disappointed. And then horrified. Bravo, Mr. Amis.
Unsympathetic characters, despicable behavior which the author tries to excuse because of where they came from. Sex with your grandmother is not acceptable no matter how poor or neglected you are. This was supposed to be funny. Well it wasn't. And the prose wasn't worth wading through it.
Got to appreciate British wit. I was unfamiliar with some of the slang used but this did not keep me from enjoying the antics of the anti-social life of Lionel and his more civilized nephew, Desmond. Life changes from near poverty to wealth after Lionel wins the lottery while incarcerated for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately his wealth does not make Lionel a likable, humble character. You have to laugh throughout the book. Quite different and refreshing from other currently popular fiction.