BOOK REIVEW / Bad habits in good company: 'Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions' - Martin Amis, Cape 15.99

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ONE OF Martin Amis's 'excursions' was driving A J Ayer to White Hart Lane, 20 years ago, to support Tottenham Hotspur. The drive is described as an example of philosophers' strange relationships with the world of objects: 'On the way Ayer smoked three cigarettes. For his first butt he disdained, or did not see, the obvious - and butt-infested - ashtray, favouring the naked tape-deck with the fiery remains of his Player . . . His second butt he squeezed into the base of the handbrake, his third he ground out on the speedometer. The high point came with his third spent match, which, with incredible skill, he balanced on the bare ignition key, where it wobbled for at least three seconds before dropping inexorably to the floor.'

The episode gives the quality of this crafty and humane collection of journalistic pieces. There is the mixture of high-level intellectual company, bad habits (that ashtray) and blokeish destination. There is the appetite for the absurd, and the (usually) generous sympathy for other people's peculiarities. There is the elegantly organised prose, balanced with as much skill as the philosopher's third match. And there is the laconic persona, his emotions on hold while he waits to see what will happen, the man of feelings with a cold eye.

These 'excursions' were the kind of journalism, Amis says, that 'got him out of the house'. Where they got him out to is a world that is 99 per cent male. He's out there with the men at the Pentagon, exchanging nuke chat. He's on the bus with the epic-drinking supporters of Watford Football Club, on their 1983 visit to China. He's in the scrum with the press pack at the Florida Virginia Slims women's tennis championships, he's suffering symptoms of asphyxiation at the Winmau World Masters darts match, he's eyeball to eyeball with a table of poker-playing writers, the hard men of inactive sport: 'It's tough out there. And it's tough in here.'

Plenty of room here for incorrectness. Amis has his own idea of

a good time with teenage tennis stars: Monica Seles's whoofing

noise (' 'Uhh]' 'Ugh-eh]' 'Uhh]' 'Ugh-eh]' '), Gabriela Sabatini's physique ('engineered, cultured and conditioned for optimum gorgeousness') and Helena Sukova's mobility - 'borne everywhere on the shoulders of two little bodybuilders (which turn out to be her legs)'. He enjoys touching in the devoted darts-player's wife, or having a go at the pornography of Madonna's Sex, 'the desperate confection of an ageing scandal-addict'.

And his chosen writers are all men. His objects of satire are boastful blokes like the pathetic John Braine and the intolerable Isaac Asimov (of whose 'hulking' autobiographies Amis reports: 'Asimov says that the books took about nine months to write. Well, they take about eight months to read.') His literary fathers are Graham Greene, John Updike, Saul Bellow, J G Ballard, Anthony Burgess and Philip Larkin, and he describes their characters and literary dispositions with affectionate acuteness. He expresses for them a quasi-filial tenderness verging (as he acknowledges) on the sentimental. Mrs Nabokov is the only woman he has a conversation with; her redoubtableness is well caught, but the real object of desire and veneration in the piece is, of course, Nabokov himself, 'whom I have always idolised'.

But Amis is no Norman Mailer. Those women judges who refused London Fields a place on a Booker shortlist on grounds of its violent anti-female pornography missed the point. Amis's outlived reputation as the bad boy of cruel amoral cynicism, of dark machismo, should finally be laid to rest by this collection. He is a hopeless case in an emergency plane landing, so drunk that his fear only comes for him afterwards ('throughout my tragic siestas I lay there trembling and boiling'). He gets weepily lost in the terrible corridors of the Pentagon, aghast at the sadness, the bitter complexity, the 'mortal shame' of nuclear weapons. (No one writes better on the still imperative subject of how this weaponry changes all our thinking and ways of being: 'If you don't think about it, what do you do about it?') He is the highly competitive player of many games (tennis, darts, chess, poker, snooker), who says he is really not very good at most of them. He is the lazy, hedonistic travel writer who feels a duty to compete with the pros of the trade but would rather stay in the hotel: 'You wonder whether Paul Theroux would be satisfied by this elegant beachfront resort set in over 100 acres of unspoiled magnificence. Would James Fenton or Bruce Chatwin? Would V S Naipaul?'

When he is a writer, he is not blokeish: he is serious, fastidious and moral. He can write with a haughty distaste - verging, at times, on the grumpy anti-modernity of his dad - about the tyranny of literary interviews ('The literary interview won't tell you what a writer is like . . . it will tell you what a writer is like to interview'), on the weirdness of stardom, on the woozy dopiness of the Reagan era. His passionate tribute to Salman Rushdie comes from the heart.

These pieces don't have the fierce power of the novels or of Einstein's Monsters; their natural habitat is newsprint, and only an Amis-addict would want to read them all at once between hard covers. But what does make them a pleasure to keep is their language. With a cool brio, Amis mixes unmatchables, makes the stale fresh, and gives adjectives new jobs to do. The actors in Madonna's Sex book are 'a dedicated janitoriat in the venereal boiler-room'; the Caribbean resort hotel has 'the authentic torpor of brochure prose'. He steps daintily inside government euphemisms, press cliches and incoherent public speech, and undoes them. If Dan Quayle had never existed, Martin Amis would have had to invent him: 'Before long, Bush found himself standing there with a look of respectful concentration on his face as Quayle hammered out: 'The question today is whether we are going forward, or past to the back.' Even this miserable commonplace was too much for him . . .'

Judging a short story competition, Amis says: 'The response to language is, as always, an ingredient of something larger.' So it is: and he's the right man to say it.