Martin Amis's long-awaited new book leaves us hungry for more
by Chris Wright
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
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
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
Luke said, "What's `A Welshman to Any Tourist' doing?"
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
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?"
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
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
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
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.