Barrel. Bottom. Scraping. Innit?

Heavy Water and Other Stories by Martin Amis Cape pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
This dismal volume contains three stories written around 20 years ago (one rewritten); the rest of the material, although it is roughly contemporary, gives little indication of emotional, intellectual or literary development. It is hard to decide whether the worst of the lot is the latest, the excruciatingly boring harangue "The Janitor on Mars", or the earliest, the gratuitously nasty "Denton's Death". If there is any linking theme, apart from revulsion at the human condition, it is a certain muted sadness, a recognition that "everything had gone wrong 40 years ago, some rainy Saturday." It was more fun to be a boy. (Girls don't really count.) So there they are, the Amis men, confused, thwarted, glumly phallocentric, just occasionally snuffing the wind for a rumour that "life might have room for more inside" before they turn back to what one might call the job in hand. Indeed, one story, "Let Me Count the Times", gives us 18 pages of the job in hand. Maybe it's what the publishers have in mind when they pathetically declare that Amis' short stories "make his novels look prim". Pah.

A couple of the more readable pieces deal with inversions. In LA the poetry business surges into mega hype, while back in London a screenwriter peddles his scripts round dingy, unheeding offices and cafes. In "Straight Fiction" it's a gay world where literature has been appropriately rewritten and cool is Hot. Over his marjoram ravioli, Cleve ponders "how Fanny Price made time with Mary Crawford, exactly how Frank Churchill strapped on Mr Knightly". Amid the horrors of a young mother's kitchen, "a field hospital of pots, pails, acids, carbolics and cauldrons of boiling laundry", he can imagine "having his legs amputated in here. But no cooking ..." Both these conceits are presented with glacial wit, with flawless dialogue and gleeful detail, but the jokes go on too long. In fact most of these stories go on too long. There is an exception. "What Happened to Me On My Holiday" is beautifully constructed and infused with a rare, astonishing warmth and tenderness. But Amis chooses to disguise these archaic qualities by writing in a ghastly phonetic speak: "Doo many vields, doo many drees, doo muj zand, doo muj zee." This does your head in. Despite a few devastating phrases, some brilliant exchanges of dialogue and two moments of real humour, this collection really scrapes the bottom of its barrel. To quote gay Kico: "I see that, I'm like, let me out of here." Or it's Hot to be prim.