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book review

British author Martin Amis in London.Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail

It can't be easy sitting down each morning under pressure to produce Martin Amis sentences. Critics may remain divided by his fiction – 13 novels into an astounding career, Amis has yet to win a Booker Prize, and has been nominated just once – but few dispute one quality of his work. Namely, he is the most original sentence-writer in English, and has been since Money set off a language riot back in 1984. An Amis sentence is mordant and coruscating, unpredictable and unruly, its own singular music. No surprise, these creations gather into paragraphs of propulsive insights, mini-essays in satiric spin and compression. There may be no better paragraph writer in the language, either.

But of an entire Martin Amis novel there is far less consensus. If all satire requires a degree of distortion to be effective, his functions best at maximum distort, a volume some find either too extreme or too noisy – or both.

While a typically bravura performance, Amis's latest, Lionel Asbo, comes close to extending a welcome to the unconvinced. His previous novel, 2010's The Pregnant Widow, definitely eased up on the distortion, opting instead – shock of shocks – for a realistic canvas and a conversational tone. The results were mixed.

Lionel Asbo, in contrast, has the trademark ferocity, the florid sentences and, to a lesser degree, toppling paragraphs. Not quite maximalist Amis, a category reserved for Yellow Dog and London Fields, it is still immersed in the criminal demimonde that continues to preoccupy him, and which brings out the glint in his moralist's eye.

Equally, however, the novel mingles in genuine characters with the usual comedic grotesques, and is tender, almost earnest, in its emotions. He even builds in plot suspense straight from a Victorian melodrama. Will the young lovers escape their dark overlord? Will their baby be mauled by pit bulls?

The eponymous Lionel Asbo is an Amis yob of the highest – or rather lowest – order, a worthy addition to the police blotter of Keith Talent and Clint Smoker, the unassailable John Self of Money. The time is the present "state of England" and the place is a fictional London borough called Diston, an epically degraded milieu.

"Diston," Amis writes, "with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston – a world of italics and exclamation marks."

Lionel Asbo, self-named after the country's Anti-Social Behaviour Order law, is a prince of the district. He has the "brutally generic" appearance of the soccer hooligan, "the slab-like body, the full lump of a face, the tightly shaved crown with its tawny stubble." Now 21, a devotee of short prison stints, Lionel misrules any under his watch, or who simply cross his path.

Over and above humans, Lionel Asbo loves his Cobra beer and Internet porn and sub-tabloid rag. He also adores his dogs. First there is Joe and Jeff, and then Jak and Jek. They bark in expletives and are fed a diet of raw meat laced with Tabasco sauce, to ensure optimal aggression.

Des Pepperdine is Lionel's unfortunate nephew. Of mixed race, Des is a lover – of books and later of a girl named Dawn – not a fighter, and admits that around his uncle and legal guardian he feels "not ill at ease. Ill."

He has good reason. So morally skewed is the Diston landscape that, at the start of the novel, 15-year-old Des is having sex with his grandmother. "Gran" is in her early 40s, ancient by community measures, and is either a nymphomaniac or simply another exemplar of that "state" of contemporary England.

Not until seven years later, married to Dawn and father to baby Cilla, does he come to fully appreciate that he may be in a life-and-death struggle with Lionel Asbo. How almost "restful" it must be, Des thinks of his uncle, "to have no consciousness of others."

Those years bring changes to Lionel as well. While in prison, he wins the lottery, a whopping £140-million, and is remade, with the help of a PR firm and a topless model and poet named Threnody, as a wonky version of an Englishman of means. The "Sweepstakes Psycho," he is called.

Amis may have borrowed the "Lotto Lout" story from English tabloid headlines, but Lionel and Threnody and Gran and the pit bulls belong exclusively to his vivid, and vividly distorted, fictional district. Des and Dawn feel newer, and it is worth remarking how skillfully he embeds them among the grotesques, and gets us rooting, as with Oliver Twist or Little Nell, for their escape from the clutches of villains.

Lionel Asbo as a page-turner? Not exactly. But the book is at once a précis of Amis's enduring concerns – the deepening "obscenification of everyday life," as he lamented in Yellow Dog – and, after a slightly muddled start, a ripper of a story, in the Dickens mode. There is even a happy ending, which may be taking things a bit far.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran is the author of 10 books, including Mordecai: The Life and Times.