After a two-and-a-half-year absence, Martin Amis is back, and he might be
hoping for a warmer reception than he got last time. It's safe to say that
Amis's last novel, The Information (Harmony Books, 1995), did not
exactly meet with universal adulation. "The thing with The Information,"
he says, speaking on the phone from his London home, "was that the mood of the
press bled into the reviews." Yes, and what an ugly mood it was. A long,
spite-filled satire about literary jealousy and cosmic despair, the book
received less critical attention than did the author's finances (a gale of
oohing and aahing greeted reports of Amis's $800,000 advance for the book), his
relationships (Uzi bursts of tut-tutting when he broke up with his wife), and
even his teeth (he spent how much on those new choppers?). Certainly,
the press did not approve. Amis was jeered, walloped with his own book, tarred
and feathered, and run out of town on a rail.|
"That hasn't happened this time," Amis says, a lick of relief plowed under by
his low, resonant tones.
By his own admission, Amis's new novel, Night Train, has gotten a
"mixed reception" so far. But at least this time the work is gaining almost as
much attention as the author. At 175 pages in a 5-by-8 format, it's not a big
book -- anorexic by the standards of London Fields and The
Information -- but it's a big book for Amis and his fans, many of whom
(myself included) disembarked from The Information red-eyed,
muddy-headed, and dissatisfied.
Set in what he describes as "a composite American city," narrated by a female
homicide detective, bearing all the noirish hallmarks of the Hammett/Chandler
whodamnit, Night Train marks a clear departure from Amis's previous
work. The night train of the title refers to exactly that: a train that passes
by the detective's apartment every night (keeping the rent low, keeping her
awake). The night train also carries lots of symbolic baggage as it rumbles and
whistles through the gloom.
Of course, no one can climb aboard the criminal mind quite like Amis, but a
crime novel? You don't need a degree in literature to realize that this is
probably not going to be your run-of-the-mill mystery. The opening paragraph
clues us in that we're in for a wobbly ride:
I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement -- or an unusual
construction. But it's a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say
I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just
say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike
Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.
There has been much speculation as to the authenticity of Amis's cop
talk here, the use of "a police" causing the most consternation. One reviewer
quoted a New York City police officer as saying, "Whoa! This writer should
change his name back to Amos and start making those famous cookies again!" John
Updike himself weighed in, calling " `I am a police' . . . the
first of a number of American locutions new to this native speaker."
"There's nothing strange about it," Amis says, bristling slightly. "I got a
lot of my stuff from David Simon's book Homicide. His city is Baltimore,
and that's what they say there, and I'll bet they say it in a few other cities,
too. It's a wonderful book, and a great help to me. That's where I point people
like John Updike." And anyway, he says, "you don't write about how people talk
-- you write about how they think, and that's usually on a deeper level than
they reveal in normal intercourse."
Hoolihan's talk is anything but normal, and her syntax: "Too, I'd
washed my hair the night before"; "like many another American"; "a homicide
come dressed to the ball as a suicide." Truth is, Hoolihan often sounds less
like a female homicide detective than like an incredibly bright London author.
"Inevitably," Amis admits, "I bleed into her and she bleeds into
me. . . . I've got to talk through her."
This is hardly a problem: Amis is one of the great prose alchemists of our
time. Who could object, for instance, to hearing his voice bleed through
Hoolihan's homicide hit parade: "So I've seen them all: Jumpers, stumpers,
dunkers, bleeders, floaters, poppers, bursters"?
All the same, Amis is insistent that he got the language right: "I do think
it's the rhythms of America," he says. "It's not like some American writer who
has all these English characters saying `cor blimey.' I think it's convincingly
American." Maybe so, but it would take a slightly odd American to break a piece
of terrible news thus: "Colonel Tom, you know I love you and I'd never lie to
you. But it seems your baby girl took her own life, sir. Yes she did. Yes she
Colonel Tom is police brass. Jennifer, his daughter, has been found in her
apartment, naked, dead, propped up in a chair, a gun in her hand, half her head
on the wall behind her. The mystery is what made her do it. She was obscenely
happy. Her boyfriend, Trader Faulkner, a hunky philosopher, was "the kindest
lover on the planet." She was beautiful, brainy, a successful astrophysicist.
So what's with all the wases? Jennifer was, as Hoolihan puts it, "an
embarrassment of perfection."
Not so Detective Hoolihan, who's an ex-alcoholic and a victim of
child abuse. "I don't know where my parents are," she says, adding, "I'm
five-ten and I go 180." Her boyfriend is so fat "he fills the room." Together
they make up "half a ton of slob and slut." Ravaged by booze, her vocal cords
charred by countless cigarettes, with dyed blond hair and a face that is "flat,
undecided," Hoolihan can only wonder what would make a woman like Jennifer
forfeit her life: "She had it all and she had it all, and then she had some
more." And then she threw it all away. Or did she? When Hoolihan discovers that
not one, not two, but three bullets pierced Jennifer's skull on the night she
died, this becomes a pressing question.
This may sound like a pretty conventional mystery plot, but Amis twists it
and shakes it and bangs its head against the wall until the convention is
almost unrecognizable. "I found the plotty stuff quite a bit more difficult
than I thought I would," he says. "It stretched me, the plot, but on the whole
it was a very pleasant writing experience."
The wonderful surprise of this book, given its distressed story line, is
what a pleasant reading experience it is. Night Train is sometimes heavy
with theme, shadowy with nuance, but it is never difficult to follow. When
Hoolihan says, "I have taken a good firm knot and reduced it to a mess of loose
ends," we know what she means, because we've been with her every step of the
Hoolihan and her fellow police want this to be a murder. "A made
homicide means overtime, a clearance stat, and high fives in the squadroom,"
she says. "And a suicide is no damn use to anyone." A suicide is of no use to a
police because "Ours is not to reason why. Give us the how, then give us the
who, we say. But fuck the why." Same thing goes for the reader of a mystery
novel. Whoever heard of a whydunit?
When we open a mystery novel, there is a tacit understanding that by the time
we close it we are going to have some answers. Night Train has been
compared to books by Hammett and Chandler, yet there are equal measures of
Camus and Pascal in it. Night Train is, at its core, an existential
novel -- it winds up wringing its hands, questioning our place in the scheme of
things. Such a book promises no answers. This tension is what gives Night
Train much of its energy, but it might drive mystery buffs to
Amis, though, believes he has made a perfect match. "I think it sort of
measures up, myself," he says. "It's a good feeling when you think, `Jesus,
this is a bit of a reckless mix.' I hope that what people see is that this is
kind of an upside-down mystery. Perhaps real addicts will realize they've been
too conditioned in this genre; perhaps they'll be excited by something new."
As it happens, it's no accident that our suicide is an astrophysicist: the
something new to which Amis refers includes ample servings of soupy cosmology.
"The death of Jennifer Rockwell was offering the planet a piece of news:
Something never seen before," says Hoolihan. Soon we're reading about an
impending "revolution of consciousness," our ever-expanding universe. And the
mystery expands right along with it. The plot doesn't thicken, it widens.
Get Shorty this book is not.
We've had cosmological fixation from Amis before, most notably in The
Information. Does the literary world's arch-cynic really buy into this
millennial end-is-nigh stuff? "No," he says, his voice animated. "The
beginning is nigh." It's almost disappointing: the inventor of the
marvelously wicked John Self and Keith Talent has a pair of rosy glasses on. "I
think that the beginnings, the stirrings of a new consciousness are everywhere
you look, and it's just a happy coincidence that the millennium is marking the
Well, cor -- if you'll pardon the expression -- blimey.
Night Train does eventually supply us with answers. Jennifer is not
what she seemed. The news her death brings is not good. "This train takes you
into the night," goes one of the book's clunkier passages, "and leaves you
there. It's the night train." Hardly the sentiments of an eternal optimist.