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States of Excitement for a Wordsmith

Authors Renowned British writer Martin Amis thinks Americans appreciate him best.

May 16, 1999|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A couple hundred people pack the room, standing on chairs, straining to catch a glimpse of the writer sitting at a table. It's the literary equivalent of a rock concert, and the star is Martin Amis, who is reading a short story called "Career Move" about a bizarro world in which a screenwriter toils in obscurity for small magazines that pay with bouncing checks, while a poet faxes off his latest work to his agent and then flies out to Hollywood to negotiate the movie deal.

"After an inconclusive day spent discussing the caesura of 'Sonnet's' opening line, Luke and his colleagues went for cocktails at Strabismus," Amis reads in the measured tones of the Oxford don he could have been. "They were given the big round table near the piano.

"Jane said, 'TCT is doing a sequel to " 'Tis." ' "

"Joan said, 'Actually it's a prequel.' "

" 'Title?' said Joe."

" 'Undecided. At TCT they're calling it " 'Twas." ' "

The crowd laughs. It's a characteristic Amis moment: erudite and absurd, a sendup of both his genteel English background and the country that seems increasingly to call to him. Amis, critic A.O. Scott wrote recently, is the greatest American writer ever born in England. Yet famously he has never won Britain's top literary award, the Booker Prize. And more and more Amis seems an expatriate at home: His wife is American, he summers on Long Island, sets his fiction in the U.S.

"American readers for some reason get me better than British readers," Amis says over dinner later. "The trouble with England is that it leads the world in nothing but decline. That's not a bad thing. We're heading toward becoming a little efficiency state like Switzerland. But the country is not exciting in a way a novelist wants it to be. America for all its faults is still exciting. It's blandness I fear."

A renowned wordsmith, Amis delights in spinning tales involving strange reversals. His new book, "Heavy Water and Other Stories" (Harmony Books), for instance, includes a piece called "Straight Fiction" in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is the love that dare not speak its name. He once wrote a book, "Time's Arrow," from the point of view of a man who experiences his life backward from death to birth. His 1997 novella "Night Train" was an American murder mystery without a murder.

"Some readers may find this kind of schoolboyish showing-off a bit unseemly in a man who will turn 50 this year," the New York Times said in a celebratory review of "Heavy Water." "But brazen insouciance, and the defiance not only of literary convention but of plain common sense, are the hallmarks of Amis' mature style."

In person, Amis is hardly insouciant. Short, his hair thinning, Amis is on the slight side, but his resonant voice, polished but hoarse, vaguely British, sounds as if it should belong to a much larger man.

Amis says the mixed reviews of his last couple of books--generally admiring of his skill but often not how he uses it--don't faze him.

"Being a son of a writer, I've never been bothered by that," he says. "If my father was ever bothered by that, he never showed it, and it becomes a point of pride and principle not to respond. . . . By the time your novel comes out you're already well into the next one. The ideas wheeling around you are what's gratifying, where your subconscious is taking you. There's no such thing anymore as a critical consensus. In England, certainly, you feel you're up against strong-minded but vaguely hysterical people on an off day."

Amis, of course, is the son of Kingsley Amis, one of Britain's best-known postwar writers ("Lucky Jim"). His stepmother is the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. When he was 9, Amis spent a year in New Jersey when his father taught at Princeton.

"For me, it was of crucial importance to write about, and in, America," Amis says. "I soaked up rhythms of speech here. Without it, I don't know if I would ever have gone off in this direction."

After graduating from Oxford, he made arrangements with his tutor to start graduate studies if a try at the literary life in London flopped. He would have written books on Dickens and other writers instead of his own novels.

In 1973, Amis published his first work of fiction, "The Rachel Papers," and nine more since then, steadily climbing to the kind of literary prominence in England that turned the personal travails of his recent years into newspaper and magazine fodder: the breakup of his marriage to Antonia Phillips, the mother of his two sons; his marriage to American novelist Isabel Fonseca; ditching his longtime British agent, Pat Kavanagh, for an American one; the size of his advances; even the extensive dental work he had done in New York.

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