Welcome to the fictional borough of London called Diston, “where calamity made its rounds like a postman.” The schoolchildren — “all morbidly obese” — suffer from diseases not seen elsewhere in years. This is a place famous for its “auto-repair yards, sawmills, and tanneries, and for its lawless traffic . . . its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste.”
The most outrageous character in this hellhole is Des’s guardian, Lionel Asbo, a Dickensian contraption of implacable muscle. “Des saw his uncle every day,” Amis writes, “and Lionel was always one size bigger than expected.” The teeth in his giant bald skull are broadly spaced, like “a cut-out pumpkin on Halloween.” British readers will hear Lionel’s last name as an acronym for Anti-Social Behavior Order, a kind of restraining order introduced by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to combat everything from swearing to arson. Lionel set a national record when he was arrested at age 3. Since then, he’s grown into a shocking thug, “a subsistence criminal” who crashes through life accompanied — during brief respites from prison — by two psychotic pit bulls that he keeps hyped up on liquor and Tabasco sauce. “They not pets,” Lionel reminds his nephew. “They tools of me trade.”
The first section jangles along with some broad comedy and even offers a little suspense as Des tries — with deadly repercussions — to keep Uncle Asbo from discovering his tryst with Gran. There’s something sweet about this bright young man and his “anti-dad,” his “counterfather.” Asbo doesn’t understand his bookish nephew — “Do something useful,” he tells him. “Steal a car” — but he watches out for the boy and allows him to grow up under the protection of his citywide terror.
The novel quickly falls apart, though, when Lionel wins 140 million pounds in the lottery and becomes a national media sensation. “It’s like a fairy tale,” Des tells his uncle, but it’s actually like a wheezing burlesque show about the crude desires of an ignorant, violent man and London’s appetite for reading about him. Rowdy reporters and paparazzi follow the “Lotto Lout” from brothel to brawl as he storms around in his “shahtoosh dinner jacket (woven from the wool of the chiru, an endangered Tibetan antelope).” His grasping brothers slither in to get their share, but Lionel won’t give them a pence as he enjoys a lunch that costs thousands of pounds, orders a Bentley and moves into a 30-room Gothic mansion built during the 14th century. His crass new girlfriend is a half-silicone creature named “Threnody,” who publishes saccharine poetry and hawks a line of “intimate garmenture.” “Glamour and myself are virtually synonymous,” she tells the Daily Mail.
Don’t low-bred people say the darndest things!? I haven’t laughed so hard since my butler got his head stuck in a bucket.