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An alpha male's story is but a beta book

Yellow Dog A Novel Martin Amis Miramax Books: 340 pp., $24.95

November 02, 2003|Adam Begley | Adam Begley is the books editor of the New York Observer.

In "Experience," the first installment of his memoirs, Martin Amis declared that "writers write far more penetratingly than they live. Their novels show them at their very best, making a huge effort: stretched until they twang." Ideally, yes. But "Yellow Dog," Amis' first novel in five twangless years, is too slack to have made much noise at all -- on its own. Amis, however, is blessed and cursed with a rare literary fame, mild here, acute in England, and the publication of "Yellow Dog" has been accompanied by the snarls, yelps and senseless baying of the British press.

This time it was a novelist, Tibor Fischer, who barked first. Writing in London's Daily Telegraph in early August, well before the publication date, Fischer declared Amis' new novel a disaster: " 'Yellow Dog' isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad.... It's like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." Newton's third law brought a swift critical reaction, a rave review in The Observer declaring "Yellow Dog" "mind-tinglingly good" and "a novel to silence the doubters." The truth is boringly somewhere in between: This is second-rate Amis, neither bad enough to blast nor good enough to crow over, a mediocre novel from a writer who, at his best -- "Money" in 1984 and "The Information" in 1995 -- is fiercely energetic and inventive.

The chaotic plot of "Yellow Dog" defies summary. There's a happily married actor-writer-singer, Xan Meo, who gets bashed in the head and degenerates from new man to caveman, from ideal husband and father to lecherous lout. There's a tabloid journalist, Clint Smoker, who writes a comically scurrilous column called "Yellow Dog" and wishes fervently for a larger phallus. There are Henry England -- Henry IX, to be precise -- who happens to be king ("He simply endured it, all the boredom, like a daily dose of chemotherapy"), and his 15-year-old daughter, Victoria, who's next in line for the throne. There's an ancient and obsessively vengeful mobster called Joseph Andrews. There's an impressively articulate porn star called Karla White, a victim of incest who discourses fluently on "the creation myth of porno."

The action of the novel involves blackmail (footage of the nubile royal princess in her bath), an airplane that crashes spectacularly in brief prose segments scattered the length of the novel, a sniper who targets only people who work in the sex industry, the pathetic decline of a violently alcoholic soccer star and more.

The setting of "Yellow Dog" is mostly London, with excursions to California. The time is today or tomorrow. The theme is male sexuality in all its many guises: good, bad and ugly. The moral of the story is expressed in a penitent letter from Xan to his estranged wife: "Men were in power for five million years. Now (where we live) they share it with women. That past has a weight, though we behave as if it doesn't.... It would be surprising if women weren't a little crazed by their gains in power, and if men weren't a little crazed by their losses." The point is hammered home: "[W]e should acknowledge the weight of it, the past."

A rare sober moment. For the most part, the novel is compulsively facetious, with jokes and puns and winking allusions. Is Amis merely too eager to please? Is he compensating for a thin, fractured plot? Or betraying hostility toward the reader, like the frenetic aggression of certain stand-up comics? Hard to say, but too much of "Yellow Dog" felt like a barrage.

It's partly the fault of Amis' tireless verbal ingenuity. He relishes surface dazzle: wordplay, flashy rhythms, typographical trickery. (One plot strand unravels with an exclamation from a character called "k8" whose only language is text-speak.) And there's the name game, an old Amis favorite. Henry IX has a butler called Love ("Two large Remy reserve, if you would, Love"), and a private secretary called Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, a homosexual shoved deep into the closet by his own initials: "Given the choice between chastity and the reification of his schoolyard nickname, Bugger chose chastity." The king's (female) lover is called He Zizhen: "He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He." Ha-ha, hee-hee.

But mixed in with the fun and games are glimpses of Amis' more valuable talent, his ability to get just right "the small and the local concerns," the precious daily stuff of life, harmless pleasures and comfortable banalities besieged by violence and filth and folly.

A sleeping baby is "pompously at peace." A car travels along a crowded, rainy highway "under skies the color of dogs' lips." The noise a computer makes when it's shutting down is "a final sigh -- a faint ricochet, a distant miaow." And -- "the sound that playgrounds make: that of unserious panic." Accuracy is only part of the magic here; there's also the paranoid wisdom of a writer who sees everywhere a faint shadow of danger.

These hints, these intimations, are more compelling than the explicit warning conveyed by the deranged Xan's suddenly prurient interest in his 4-year-old daughter or by Karla White's ghastly testimony ("Between the age of six and nine, inclusive, my father raped me once a day"). Our caveman past weighing on us again, or perhaps an ever-deeper atavism: "You can live as an animal lives," Xan thinks. "[H]e knew, now, why an animal would eat its young. To protect them -- to put them back inside."

Amis relents at the end of "Yellow Dog" and shows us the other face of aggressive male sexuality, a paternal love that protects without menace. But a sweet, gentle closing scene -- a baby's first steps -- can't save this otherwise shrill novel from its depressing inconsequence. *

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