When I think of the late Martin Amis, who died Friday in Florida at 73 of the same esophageal cancer that took the life of Christopher Hitchens in 2011 — the latter adored Amis for his wit, his sexual profligacy, and his verbal dexterity, and wrote at length about their friendship in Hitch-22, published in 2010— I find myself most impressed with Amis’ short stories, ironically, since there’s not a word about them in his obituary in the New York Times.
“What Happened to Me on My Holiday” is a tour de force, full of feeling, a story about a boy doing his best in deliberately close-to-unintelligible language (that is nevertheless available to a committed reader willing to slow down) to come to terms with his brother’s death by drowning. (For a play-by-play gloss on the story to make it easier to read, see https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/07/21/what-happened-to-me-on-my-holiday-for-elias-fawcett-1978-96). The story is about denial of a truth that can’t be contained or denied. “Career Move,” alternatively, is great fun, a comic howl of a story premised on the notion that screenplays are sold for nothing to small magazines whereas villanelles and sestinas are highly sought by producers and made into epic films.
Both stories appear in his collection Heavy Water. It might be considered writing he did with his left hand, but I recommend it first for those of you interested in sampling his work. You can hold the stories in your hand and mind like a well-thumbed cellphone and won’t be put off by excessive verbiage.
He’s a writer who had the good fortune and also the misfortune to be born to the prolific writer and proud alcoholic Kingsley Amis (whose first novel, Lucky Jim, published in 1954, is perhaps the greatest comic novel about academia ever written). Some would say he overcame that affliction, others that he benefitted irreparably, since his surname opened doors for him (after his OxBridge education) before he even knocked.
Though his family life was tumultuous, with frequent moves as his father, prominent after the publication of Lucky Jim, sought out temporary academic positions and, soon enough, a divorce that traumatized his 12-year-old son, he was brought up in permissive privilege and became, himself, a dandy, a womanizer, and a young man so enamored of his verbal dexterity and good luck in life that he became a kind of Richard Cory, both envied and hated, with a circle of friends who appeared as often in the social register and on society pages as in book reviews.
A great career, either way, and a shelf of books worth conjuring with if you don’t mind some misogyny and misanthropy along the way. None of his books are less than interesting, and he was often the center of controversy: sometimes he went out of his way to be provocative, as when he castigated Muslims in general after 9/11 rather than the jihadists among them — these days white supremacy both here in the States and abroad, as well as too many guns in the hands of too many fools with trigger tempers, is a much more urgent problem, but his brashness was news at the time, and he was humiliated and forced to apologize to save face. There was also the fiasco when he dropped his literary agent, the wife of his then-best friend Julian Barnes, for Andrew Wylie, known as ‘The Jackal’ of books for his cutthroat business tactics, so that he could get the kind of advance that until then most Brits only dreamed about.
In other words, he was a precursor. The Beatles made the song Money (That’s What I Want), written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, famous in 1963, when it was the closing cut on their second album, but Amis lived the life of such a debonair connoisseur, the writer as capitalist — he adored Saul Bellow, but the writer whose ethos most closely matched his own is Norman Mailer —and as influencer and brand ambassador.
For all the market flash, however, such bursts of tabloid razzmatazz were camouflage — Amis was always, first and foremost, a serious writer who employed satire and not headbutting or fisticuffs — Mailer motifs — as his primary weapon. His writing engaged with the times and the subculture of spendthrift bursting like soap bubbles around him.
After you read a half-dozen of the short stories and digest his excellent memoir, Experience, you’ll be prepared to dose yourself with his ‘big’ books like Money, London Fields, and The Information (a trilogy of sorts), as well as his later historical novels about Stalin’s Gulag, and familiarize yourself with his often interesting literary commentary.
A word of warning, though: he can be a snob who is sometimes too clever by half (as the Brits like to say) and once stated unequivocally that he would never consider reading any writer younger than himself. That’s asinine, of course, but no doubt such a philosophy saved him a lot of time, I would imagine, and certainly kept him out of the classroom, where I’ve spent so much of my time over the years reading apprentice work, however promising, that he avoided like the plague.
As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about Amis but not about the significance or worth of his body of work. Now that I’m retired from teaching and write full-time, my work each day taking place on the page and not in the classroom, I’m envious that he’s always been devoted to his own words. Born in 1949, he’s a bit older than I am, though not by much, and is much better known, so I won’t compare my American work to his considerable British oeuvre.
What I will do, though, is put him in a box with Jay McInerney (b. 1955) whose Bright Lights Big City was published in 1984, 11 years after Amis’ first novel The Rachel Papers, and Bret Easton Ellis (b. 1964), whose first novel, Less Than Zero, came out in 1985, and whose third, American Psycho, was published in 1991.
If you read Amis, McInerney, and Ellis sequentially — all three are satirists, though Amis can write rings around the other two — you’ll understand what happened when the Sixties died on the vine and the Reagan/Thatcher era made it fashionable to take from the poor and give to the rich. Many men went mad for money and cocaine, for pussy and power, and the result, what we have today in the West, the disease and its symptoms, is an incalculable mess.
All three of these writers make our descent entertaining. After reading them, you’ll want to go elsewhere to clean your palate, but you’ll also understand why our palates need cleansing. Of the three, Amis is the one who will last, because he’s one hell of a stylist, with a voice that once in your head you won’t be able to shake free from, at least not until you replace it with your own voice, your own sentences, your own way of seeing and living inside the world that together we make over each day. Only the best writers, like Amis, can bring us back to ourselves.