Jonathan Cape £18.99

Lionel Asbo, By Martin Amis

Martin Amis's return to the state-of-the-nation novel – about a loutish lotto winner – wallows in low culture and bitter satire. But whither the pathos?

Lionel Asbo returns Martin Amis to the state-of-the-nation novel, and to his perpetual interest in satirising the life and aspirations of the English underclass. The eponymous anti-hero is a criminal thug living in the loathsome London borough of Diston. As nasty, brutish and short as is expected of the author who created Little Keith (Dead Babies), Keith Talent (London Fields) and John Self (Money), Lionel also has a 15-year-old mixed-race nephew and ward, Desmond, who is his opposite. With the bad luck to be born with brains, a work ethic and a kind heart, Des also has a secret preference for sex with his grandmother, Grace, who is Lionel's mother.

Ever since 1978's Success, the magnetic poles of Amis's imagination have been privilege and its antithesis. It's tempting to suspect that the author is endlessly exploring what would have awaited him in his own life had he not discovered his academic intelligence and his prodigious gifts as a novelist. Yet the comic struggle between Desmond and Lionel ("I despair of you sometimes, Des. Why aren't you out smashing windows?" the thug says on hearing his nephew has been writing about The Faerie Queene) promises a wider relevance. Like Francis Gilbert's non-fiction book Yob Nation, it's about how low we have sunk by abandoning ideals of high culture and succumbing to those fostered by tabloids, Big Brother and "celebrities": its subtitle is "The State of England".

The literary model here is Hard Times (Des's sink school is pointedly called Squeers Free), though Amis describes his characters' moral and cultural wasteland with a relish far removed from Dickensian compassion. The riffs on the urban wasteland of Diston, "with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzly low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste", are a guilty pleasure.

Lionel, whose sources of employment involve intimidation and whose hobbies are violence and pornography, inevitably hears reports of a teenager having sex with Grace. (Having had seven children by the age of 19, his mother is still only 39.) He murders one of Des's schoolfellows – the improbably named Rory Nightingale – on suspicion, and then wins 50p short of £140m in a lottery.

So a queasy odyssey of high spending and low living begins, embodying all that is most grotesque about instant fame and money – especially once Lionel finds "true love" with "Threnody", the kind of glamour model who makes Jordan look like a genius. Yet no amount of cars, champagne, plasma TV sets, or suits "of a truly presidential costliness" will make Lionel into a national treasure – and nor does he wish to change.

The trouble with Lionel Asbo is that this underworld, with its tawdry dreams and supposed absence of morals, is so easy to send up that reading it feels like Amis is shooting fish in a barrel. There are plenty of people in Britain who look like Lionel and live like Lionel, but even Bill Sykes had more to him – and he didn't feed his dogs Tabasco. Dickens, like Amis, encountered a class very different from that he had been born into, and recoiled; he also tried to see into its heart, and find those to cherish. Amis sticks at emphasising how much effort Lionel has put into being as stupid as he is; how deliberately he has fostered his hatred of anything intellectual (though his own mother gets The Telegraph for its crossword puzzle); how he once "tried being loved ... Didn't do a fucking thing for me."

Though his ranting monologues could be taken verbatim from life, Lionel is a cartoon of a chav, from whom we learn nothing but a horrified despair. Meanwhile, Desmond's part in the novel is underdeveloped; his story's initial tension never realised, as it subsides into yet another paean to the beauty and innocence of baby girls – even if the baby in question is incestuous.

A satirical novel needs archetypes, not clichés: Becky Sharp is real to us in a way that Lionel, the Keiths and John Self never are – perhaps because, as readers, we are on her side. The "lotto lout" is just the kind of subject that would enthral any heir to Hogarth, yet for bitter wit to bite, it needs pathos. Once again, the delight of re-encountering Amis's mordant prose falls away after an initial dazzling burst of promise.

Yet it is Amis whose early novels, at least, continue to be read with enthusiasm by the young, who love him as one of their own. His anarchic imaginings live on, while more genteel, measured fictions fade from memory soon after winning prizes. He remains one of the most interesting authors we have, not least for continually engaging with those areas in the life of a nation which journalists and politicians tip-toe around. If only he would grow into what he could still become, he would be the greatest of us all.

Amanda Craig's most recent novel is 'Hearts and Minds' (Abacus, £8.99). Her third novel, 'A Vicious Circle', will be reissued by Abacus on 23 June.

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