Remembering Martin Amis: literary bad boy—and an unexpected moralist
Martin Amis was an acquired taste.
It is in fact easy today to look at the corpus of work by the British writer, who died of cancer last week at 73 in Florida, and find a lot of it distasteful. The novels, the essays and the countless articles have not all aged well. Outrageous, witty, insightful, quick on his feet, omnivorous in his appetite for prey, Amis also comes across often enough as an arrogant, entitled, sexist, classist bully who sought out offense rather than dealing with it as it came. It is not impossible to imagine that if he were in his prime today, he would have a drink too many at a book launch and announce that Donald Trump was misunderstood.
Who knew that deep down, Martin Amis was a moralist?
At the same time, writers sometimes get a pass that the rest of us don’t—why else would anyone still be reading Norman Mailer or Philip Roth—and while I can see all of the above about Amis is true, I also greatly admired and enjoyed his writing. A.O. Scott noted earlier this week that Amis had a particular appeal to members of Generation X (whom Amis, charming to the last, called “the crap generation”), and a cursory look at America’s own literary coverage offers anecdotal confirmation. His famous father, the writer Kingsley Amis (himself hilarious and cruel, and Lucky Jim still slaps), found far more favor with our writers than his son ever did in the magazine’s pages; despite a career that spanned five decades, Amis fils is mentioned only in the past two decades, and usually in the context of his friend and fellow literary bad boy Christopher Hitchens.
While Amis’s nonfiction is to my mind the crown jewel of his collection—I have never been in a dentist’s chair and not recalled his harrowing account in his memoir Experience of having all his teeth pulled—I first encountered him through his 1984 novel, Money: A Suicide Note. Living in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, I walked on my way from work every day past an anarchist bookstore on South Street, The Wooden Shoe. (It’s still there, though the rest of South Street became Disneyfied many years ago.) I would buy The Nation there, mostly for the writing of Hitchens, still a velveteen Marxist in those days.
A friend leaving Philadelphia to begin an M.F.A. program went to The Wooden Shoe with me and found Money in its stacks (presumably it was there because of the connection with Hitchens) and bought it for me as a farewell present. “You’ll love it,” she said. “It’s hilarious and so accurate.”
Amis’s savage wit and libertine antics earned him a nickname he probably wished he had invented himself: “Smarty Anus.”
Fifty pages in, I was somewhat taken aback. The first-person tale of a British enfant terrible crashing around Manhattan amid vague plans to make a movie, it was an unrelenting barrage of boastful sexual conquests, boozy lunches, lengthy descriptions of pornographic theaters and no end of frenzied consumption, and struck me as exactly the sort of book my friend would hate. I told her as much on the phone, and she responded in a way that would make Amis proud: Stop being a ninny, grow up and finish the book.
She was right. By the end of the novel, I recognized that the debauched character of John Self was more than just a British version of a Jay McInerny protagonist or Bret Easton Ellis antihero: He was a warning. Money is a laugh a minute and pornographic as all get out, but it is also at the end a profound if somewhat exhausting parable: Here is what happens when you deny yourself nothing. Amis himself quite obviously knew well what his fictional alter ego John Self figured out, and I’m not sure that he didn’t have even more fun than John Self did while learning it, but Money is ultimately a fantastic and deeply insightful novel. Who knew that deep down, Martin Amis was a moralist?
I dug out my old copy of Money this week and reread it. Still scabrously funny. Still exhausting. Still an acquired taste. And yet still a work of art.
There were plenty of other novels before and after, including London Fields and The Information, and in 2020 Amis published Inside Story, an autobiographical novel full of Amis’s typical snark and score-settling but also touching in its relating of how many friends and heroes the septuagenarian had lost by then, including Hitchens from the same esophageal cancer that would kill Amis himself. And, of course, there were the hundreds of thousands of pages of nonfiction.
His 2001 collection The War Against Cliché offers his best writing and his worst, and somehow enraged critics even though everything in it had already been published, sometimes three decades earlier. Amis’s enemies had enemies when he was at his peak, and his savage wit and libertine antics earned him a nickname he probably wished he had invented himself: “Smarty Anus.” The New York Times once described him as an avatar of “the new unpleasantness,” writing that “his voice stands out discordantly from the rest like a boom box at a harpsichord recital.” Along with Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and James Fenton, he became a kind of icon of postcolonial British literature, witnesses to the dying of the empire and a culture deciding what came next.
Americans who read him might be surprised to hear that, because he strikes a lot of readers as more American than British: It was the shoulders of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov that Amis seemed to imagine himself standing on, after all, not those of his famous father. Like Hitchens and Rushdie, he existed in multiple cultures as an always recognizable voice, one not easily imitated. In a New Yorker tribute to Amis, McEwan recalled Amis’s letter years ago to Private Eye (the magazine that gave him the aforementioned nickname) when someone had faked a letter to the editor in Amis’s name. “I don’t write like that,” Amis began. “I write like this.”
I dug out my old copy of Money this week and reread it. Still scabrously funny. Still exhausting. Still an acquired taste. And yet still a work of art. “Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror,” says John Self. “It’s passing, yet I’m the one who’s doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.”
That was Martin Amis. Not the station, not the stop. The train.