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Friday, November 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Adam Woog
Martin Amis' new novel, "Yellow Dog," caused quite a stir in England when it appeared there earlier this year. One especially vicious public attack came from novelist Tibor Fischer, who called the book "not-knowing-where-to-look bad" and declared that he was embarrassed to be seen reading it in the subway.
In this country, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recently commented that the book "bears as much resemblance to Mr. Amis' best fiction as a bad karaoke singer does to Frank Sinatra."
Well, I'm here to say that "Yellow Dog" is not so terrible.
Not so terrible! How's that for a ringing endorsement of one of England's most prodigiously gifted writers?
But it's the truth, at least for this longtime fan. Yes, "Yellow Dog" has long passages of self-indulgent, head-scratchingly obtuse slush. Yes, it's hard to discern a theme. But the book also has enough good stuff flashes of dazzling satire and word-play to keep interest from sagging.
Amis has commented that his intent in writing "Yellow Dog" was "a comic novel about the dislocation we've all had since (9-11)." Another theme at least as near as I could figure is the ease with which civilized man (and woman) can slip into a mindless, caveman-style existence.
As is common with Amis, several plot strands unfurl simultaneously. In his best writing, these interlock in neat and surprising ways. Here, Amis has a lot to work with, and the pieces never mesh. There are some amazing individual scenes here, but there's also an inability (or an unwillingness) to connect them coherently.
The primary figure is Xan Meo successful writer and actor, son of a gangster, loving husband and father. When Xan suffers a serious head injury in a mugging, his personality changes; he becomes a befuddled, aggressive sex maniac and his happy world quickly disintegrates.
Then there's Clint Smoker, a slobby and desperately anxious reporter for a sleazy tabloid, who's maintaining an online flirtation with a reader.
Thrown into the mix are such elements as a hard-case criminal, dispatches from a doomed jetliner and a deeply broken royal family (the king's a buffoon, the queen's in a coma, and the princess may be involved in a mysterious sex scandal).
And yet, and yet ... there are those flashes of brilliance. Amis is still a master of the language, with a distinctive combination of erudition and zingy, slangy prose. For instance, he's always been great at depicting hapless, tearful frustration. Take this passage about Xan, just back from the hospital:
"Very soon it became clear that he could be trusted with nothing. The spacious kitchen, where Xan spent most of his suddenly limitless free time (he was keen to reassert his culinary skills), became a psycho's laboratory of molten frying pans, blackened pots and blazing skillets; the waste-disposer would be chewing its way through one of his dropped tablespoons while the microwave juddered and seethed. Things slid through his fingers spillages, sickening breakages. The toaster scorched him, the coffee-grinder finesprayed him. Even the fridge stood revealed as his foe."
Amis long ago proved himself with the best of his writing: "London Fields," "The Information," the nonfiction collection "The War Against Cliché." So what if "Yellow Dog" is a mess? So what if he's rehashing old themes? Assuming he hasn't reached terminal self-parody (and I don't think he has), it's a cruel world indeed that doesn't forgive a gifted writer the occasional slip on a banana peel.
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