This book is set in the hard streets of Diston, a crime-ridden down-and-out British neighborhood. Its title figure, Lionel Asbo, is hard. He is the most feared man in his neighborhood. He keeps two ferocious pit bulls on his apartment balcony. He is a debt collector. He has been a criminal since he was a toddler. He reads tabloids religiously and speaks an English that is sliding into soft, sibilant consonants.
Amis shows us this world through Lionel’s orphaned nephew, Desmond, who is a “brother,” as Lionel says, in this poor white neighborhood. Desmond becomes a self-taught intellect when Lionel gives him full access to his laptop with the goal of introducing him to porn and keeping him away from girls. Desmond instead learns languages and begins exploring the world of knowledge outside of Diston. Des loves Lionel, whose reputation allows Des to walk through the neighborhood safely, fears him, and pities him.
Des’ mother had him when she was twelve. His grandmother had his mother at age 12. At age 39, his grandmother initiates a sexual affair with Des, who notes that it’s not unusual in their neighborhood to see such relationships within families. When he begins to fear his Uncle Lionel’s wrath, his grandmother takes up with one of his classmates, whom Lionel subsequently makes disappear. This section of the novel was difficult to read.
The novel shifts when Lionel wins the lotto–140 million dollar prize. He struggles to deal with his new wealth, but does not feel compelled to share with his large family. He is termed the Lotto Lout, among other cutesy monikers.
Although near the end of the novel, I nearly had to stop reading when Des’ infant daughter, Cilla, was sleeping in the room adjacent to the balcony that contained Lionel’s pit bulls, who had been primed for an attack the next day. Those pages were painful, terrifying, nauseating, worse than watching a character in a horror movie walk toward his or her death.
Amis writes a novel about class without preaching about class. Only at one moment, when Lionel walks into a hotel and realizes his fellow patrons are in their eighties, far older than anyone in Diston, does Amis even allow anything that sounds like sociological analysis to enter his tale. He does not need to preach. He shows. Lionel prefers prison. He names his new home after the prison to which he has so often sojourned as a criminal. He keeps his bedroom in the flat at Diston, even at the discomfort of Des and his wife and child.
This novel is told through men’s eyes. We can pity Lionel’s mother, Grace, so lonely that she reaches out to her young grandson. Or Gina, Lionel’s childhood muse, who is torn between two violent men and whose wedding reception puts all of the guests in either prison or the hospital. We can cringe when Lionel beats the random women with whom he has sexual encounters, but we do not hear their voices. Lionel sees a therapist about his deviant sexual appetites and is reassured that they’re caused my his mother having been a slag–which was evidenced by his brothers all exhibiting different phenotypes. A novel that shows the world of Diston through the women’s eyes would be an interesting companion State of England volume.