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Too much!
Martin Amis goes off his own deep end
Yellow Dog
By Martin Amis. Miramax Books, 348 pages, $24.95.

At the beginning of Yellow Dog, Xan Meo is a celebrity, a TV actor, and his second marriage, unlike his disastrous first one, is satisfyingly civilized. "He was happy now," we are told, though it’s "a delicate state: you could feel the tingle of its stress-equations." Xan comes from a violent, thuggish background, and his current equilibrium is a fragile thing. What’s more, "he was famous, and therefore in himself there was something specious and inflationary, something bigged-up." But Xan is quickly littled-down by a crushing blow to the skull delivered by a stranger for a transgression that will gradually be revealed over the course of the book. Meanwhile, he’s survived the attack but in an altered state, his sophisticated façade of restraint having been replaced by a corrosive sexual appetite and a generally unpleasant demeanor. It’s the return of the repressed in spades, and when he begins to leer at his four-year-old daughter, Billie, matters threaten to take a very nasty turn.

This is an overheated novel even by Amis’s standards, its tone reminiscent, with its hyped-up nastiness, of earlier punkish efforts like Success (1978) and Dead Babies (1975). It consists of three interrelated stories told in alternating chapters and one story that hangs loosely at the close of each section of the book. This odd tale out, which seems meant to serve as some sort of commentary/metaphor on the other three, is an extended puzzler about a dead man in the cargo hold of a plane who’s willing it to crash. The other stories are about a royal scandal involving the daughter of King Henry IX (which places the novel in a parallel universe) and the grungy adventures of a tabloid journalist. Clint Smoker works for the Morning Lark (both he and his rag first appeared in London Fields), and his crowning achievement comes when he gets his own column, an outlet for his vitriolic misogyny called "Yellow Dog."

Yellow Dog the novel is a satire, which explains its wild woolliness and also why so many people in the book have "funny" names, from Xan and his "American wife Russia" to the king, who’s nicknamed Hotty in recognition of his performance as Hotspur in a student production of Henry IV, Part One, and his equerry, one Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, who’s known by the extended acronym Bugger. The king’s butler is named Love, and you just know that Amis is tickled when he can get the three of them in one room. Then there’s the King’s mistress, a Chinese woman named He Zizhen. That leads to this: "As she removed her clothes He caressed him with them, and then with what the clothes contained. He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He."

One expects these kind of linguistic high jinks from Amis — there’s also an unfortunate minor character named Andy, who’s referred to as And, and Smoker’s mysterious admirer, who communicates with him in a horrid, condensed e-mail speak: "My i’s r green (tho not with n.v!). My hair is s&y & ‘flyaway.’ " But one expects more. Yellow Dog is entertaining, but after Money (1984) and London Fields (1989), it seems like familiar ground retread but not rethought, and after the somewhat more settled satire of The Information (1995) a step backward.

Amis writes about the modern world from the point of view of the terminally maladjusted, where everything seems fake or toxic or both. He’s aware that the more information becomes available, the less people seem to know — or the less they know what to make of it. He’s at his best — eloquent and funny — when he makes his ironic observations about our ostensibly egalitarian age, as when Xan’s post-trauma physician, Dr. Gandhi, thinks: "How much better it had been, how much more appreciated he had felt, when nobody knew anything — in the time before the publicity of knowledge. Now, instead of the sweating mutes of yesterday, you faced erratically wised-up mountebanks with half-assimilated case-histories, prognoses, quackeries. Dr. Gandhi believed that it would be fractionally harder, henceforward, to get doctors to be doctors, such was the drain on the job-satisfaction."

But this time out, it’s all too much, and the novel runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. By the time Clint Smoker gets seriously involved in the pornography business, you’ve probably been desensitized by Amis’s prodigious gift for turning disgust into a well-turned phrase. It’s the kind of book that Amis fans (and I consider myself one) will more or less enjoy, but I can’t imagine that anyone will relish it.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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