Martin Amis' 'Yellow Dog' -- a raucous and profound novel

On Books

October 19, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

Just coming on the U.S. market is the latest novel by Martin Amis -- his 12th work of fiction -- Yellow Dog (Miramax, 352 pages, $24.95). It is raucously funny, relentlessly fast-paced, delightfully intricate in its internal plays on the best traditions of 18th and 19th century fiction -- and, finally, a deeply moving novel of seriousness and important values.

Xan (from Alexander) Meo, a 47-year-old writer, television personality and actor, is married to a woman named Russia. They are adoring parents of 4-year-old Billie and infant Sophie. Russia, nee Tannenbaum, is a history professor at a major university. It evolves slowly that Xan's father was a gangster, who spent much of his life in prison, where he died. But Xan has dragged himself up and is "the dream husband: a fifty-fifty parent, a tender and punctual lover, a fine provider, an amusing companion, a versatile and unsqueamish handy man, a subtle and accurate cook, and a gifted masseur who, moreover ... never fools around."

Four years before the action of this book, Xan had given up drinking and drugs. As the book begins, he is setting out to a nearby pub for his anniversary drinking binge. There, he is attacked by unseen assailants who bash his head and leave him severely injured. He recovers, over a period of several awful weeks, but his personality is gradually but radically changing. He becomes abusive, embarrassing, sexually exploitative -- an appalling character reversal.

A second story line, also in present time, involves a playfully fictional King Henry IX and his 15-year-old daughter and heir, Princess Victoria. Victim of an accident that has left her a human vegetable, "the Queen was not in the garden, eating bread and honey. She was attached to certain machines, in the Royal Inverness." Father and daughter are being threatened with blackmail by the mysterious owners of apparently an obscene film of Victoria. The royals' story, carried on as a sort of burlesque of intrigue, is charming and affectionate.

A third story line -- the three run in sequential, contemporaneous scenes, playing around each other but barely ever touching until the end of the book -- involves Clint Smoker, a reporter and columnist for the Morning Lark, a tabloid that goes well beyond even Britain's most vulgar and trivial mass newspapers. Its target audience is below the proletariat. The publishing company's real money is in hardcore Web sites, films and sex phone lines. Though Amis pushes the cynicism and energy of the uniquely British tabloid world well beyond reality, it comes off as delightful and convincing.

The book is told in the distinct idioms of three dramatically contrasting levels of British society -- royalty, sharp-edged intellectuals and the lowest level of criminals and hack journalists. They could be taken as the major bands of the full spectrum of British life, though the text betrays no hint of an ambition for universality. Any one, or all, of these idioms may be difficult for some Americans to manage, though most of the usages can be unscrambled from context.

There is a good deal of material about the pornography industry, connected with the threat of a royal scandal, that takes the narrative to Hollywood -- or rather, to a California area called Lovetown, the capital of porn production. If you are put off by such things -- it gets quite graphic -- this book may not be for you.

Here and in earlier work, Amis is unfailingly deft in weaving a texture of wit and irony, playing on words, on images, on internal and external references. Throughout, cheery repartee moves swiftly. There are tiny little tone poems of basic domesticities and dailiness -- clipping toenails, dressing, using a home computer -- that are enchanting in their insight and presentation. Amis is a master craftsman.

Among a half-dozen or so marvelously effective devices that he has contrived to ornament the main story lines is delicious send-up of e-mail usages. A mysterious stranger develops an intimate Internet exchange with the tab reporter, writing in excruciating code and contractions. Much of it is not fit for a family newspaper, but here's a short sample:

"dear clint: @ last - the dex r clearing! He's not a gr8 hint-taker, orl&do, & he hasn't noticed I've stopped talking 2 him. But he has noticed i've stopped making his t." (You get it: Dear Clint: At last -- the decks are clearing! He's not a great hint-taker, Orlando, and he hasn't noticed I've stopped talking to him, but he has noticed I've stopped making his tea.)

Swift as the action is, this is an intricate novel, with a large cast of characters, many of whom have extraordinarily unusual personal characteristics, manners of speaking and lives. Almost all their names are playful in one manner or another -- many undecipherably so.

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