Book of a lifetime: Money, By Martin Amis


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The Independent Culture

I was 18 when I read this, in the first year of my English degree, and, more than anything else, it made me want to become a writer. I can still remember reading the first page, in the eighth floor library at Glasgow University. I'd picked it up, I think, because I'd seen an interview with Amis in the NME, of all places. I can quote that opening line from memory: "As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows."

We were in America for sure, maybe New York? I didn't know. I hadn't been to New York. I hadn't been anywhere. A Tomahawk? Was that a real car? And as for "sharking out of lane" to describe cutting someone up? Woah. I felt what Nabokov described as "that tell-tale tingle between the shoulder blades", the feeling that you are encountering something truly great.

I was stunned by the incredible assurance in the voice of John Self, Money's narrator. You were going to listen to this guy and fuck you. (Many years later I tried to bring this exact quality to Steven Stelfox, the narrator of my debut novel Kill Your Friends.) I was also flooded with the sensation Amis later said he experienced when he first read Saul Bellow - the instant knowledge that this was a writer by whom you are going to have to read everything. And I have. I find the Amis-bashing of recent years increasingly puzzling.

Obviously, if you have a career that spans five decades and 20-plus books, then some are going to be more successful than others. I didn't think Night Train quite came off, but I loved Yellow Dog. And I'd have been very sad not to have the following exchange from Lionel Asbo, where geopolitics are shone through the prism of the pub brawler: "Iraq? What happened was all these blokes with J-cloths on their heads flew some planes into – " "But 9/11 had nothing to do with the Iraq War."

"Look, America's Top Boy. He's the Daddy. And when a liberty like 9/11 happens the Daddy lashes out."

"Yeah, but who at?"

"Don't matter. Anyone'll do."

Amis said that when reading Bellow he often had to remind himself that the author was born in 1915, not 1950. Such was the freshness and vitality of Bellow's prose. Similarly, reading Amis today I always feel slightly astonished to remember that that he was born in 1949, and not 1979. I'm not even sure that Money is my favourite Amis novel anymore. I'd make a strong case for The Information, or Time's Arrow. But this was where it all began for me. This was it.

John Niven's new novel is 'Straight White Male' (Heinemann)