Martin Amis (1949-2023) braved the moronic inferno

My neighbor Swamp Rabbit was drinking beer on his porch when I told him that British author Martin Amis died last weekend.  

“Okay, but what’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” he said, referring to the fact that a dozen eggs at the Acme can still cost more than four dollars.

I told him that Amis at full throttle is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson in his glory days. Some of his protagonists have the same manic energy, the same flair for brutally honest, comical self-criticism. I mentioned John Self, the first-person narrator of Amis’s novel Money: A Suicide Note (1984), whose self-destructive sorties in New York City recall those of Thompson’s alter-ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

Now the way I figured it I had six realistic options. I could sack out right away, with some scotch and a few Serafim. I could go back to the Happy Isles and see what little Moby was up to. I could call Doris Arthur. I could catch a live sex show around the corner, in bleeding Seventh Avenue. I could go out and get drunk. I could stay in and get drunk. In the end I stayed in and got drunk. The trouble was, I did all the other things first.

I noted that Self, a director of TV commercials, uses his confessions to exalt his many addictions. He’s a media whore, an amusing monster, a device created by Amis to lampoon the excesses of our sick, money-driven culture, which is even sicker now than it was in the pre-Internet ’80s.

“Blah blah,” my mangy friend said. “I live in a shotgun shack with a leaky roof. So do you. Why should I care what that bad boy wrote?”

I tried again: In some of his best fiction, Amis captured the giddy hedonism of the 1980s and early ’90s as the world was slipping into a downward spiral triggered by climate change, wealth inequality and pervasive cynicism. Writ large, the story of John Self’s ongoing self-abuse – I was lying face down under some hedge or bush or some blighted shrub in a soaked allotment full of nettles, crushed cigarette packs, used condoms and empty beer cans – is the story of humankind’s ongoing abuse of the planet.

Amis keeps us laughing – Refreshed by a brief blackout, I got to my feet and went next door – as Self, seeking more money, more everything, staggers toward his inevitable crash. His ignoble odyssey begs the big question:  Do we still have time to clean up our act, or is the crash a foregone conclusion?

“The crash is already here,” Swamp Rabbit said as he flung an empty can into the weeds in front of his shack. “It’s breakfast time but I can’t even afford to have eggs with my beer.”

Footnote: Amis wrote a lot of first-rate fiction and nonfiction. Arguably, the novels Money, London Fields and The Information, all written prior to the millennium, are his best works.

Another: The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America is the title of Amis’s 1986 book of essays. He borrowed the phrase from Saul Bellow, who took it from the writer and painter Wyndham Lewis.

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