Swelter 6

There's a sad expanse of oiled flesh by the Fontainebleau Hilton pool, sizzling like bacon in the sun, and the Peck's Bad Boy of England, author Martin Amis, is rolling another cigarette by a high camp mural of rearing horses, eerily composed for a man in the eye of a literary firestorm. In town to read from his new novel, The Information, at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Amis is at rest on Miami Beach, gearing up for a national reading tour befitting his transatlantic ambitions. A middling-born but impeccably credentialed writer -- the prolific son of Lucky Jim's Kingsley Amis, an Oxford boy who made good -- Amis seems perfectly comfortable in America, what London's Sunday Times called the "Moronic Inferno." At 44 years old, Amis is very small, very slight, and newly enriched by a very large book advance: "I haven't left the hotel all weekend; dinner in the Poodle Lounge, danced a bit, as well. Next week it's on to the heartland, and the idea has been to remain horizontal."

As of late, Amis, the author of eight previous novels and three collections of journalism and criticism, has ascended into the major leagues with a very big book: a literary Bonfire of the Vanities crossed with a vivisection of the Hampstead intelligentsia, ratland America, and the violent decay of modern-day London. In a neat instance of life imitating art, his tale of literary envy, malice, greed, ambition, infidelity, and the betrayals of friendship has created a barrage of controversy, with Amis being accused of various deadly sins by the politburo of English literature. Mired in a classic midlife crisis, Amis decided to establish his worth as a writer, insisting on an $800,000 advance, chump change in the new era of publishing. His agent at the time, Pat Kavanagh, also happened to be the wife of Amis's former close friend, Julian Barnes, of Flaubert's Parrot fame. Although Kavanagh got him close to the money he wanted, Amis dumped her and called in the unseemly upstart Andrew Wylie, the agent of Salman Rushdie, Germaine Greer, and Amis's American girlfriend, Isabel Fonseca.

The furor over the advance was compounded by the breakup of his marriage to Antonia Phillips, an American who bore him two sons over the course of a twelve-year relationship. To fuel the flames, Amis went out and spent 25 grand on an American dentist, attention to mere molars, even necessary dental surgery, being considered thoroughly pretentious in the land of bad teeth. Since then the writer A.S. Byatt has denounced this extravagance and the money given to a literary novel that may not earn out its advance, as Amis's novelist friends -- Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Will Self, Kazuo Ishiguro -- have rallied around him. An ugly only-in-England episode, but an enviable publicity opportunity, Amis's name being profitably bandied about in every strain of the press, from The New Yorker to Glamour and various gossip columns: "For a while, even the more bourgeois tabloids, like the Daily Mail, staked out my wife's house, along with Isabel and myself -- unfortunately, we never made The Sun."

At the moment, England is far away, and Amis, nursing a couple of beers at the poolside lounge, is taking the long view, sharp, friendly, and expansive in the American style: "I started very young, with The Rachel Papers at 23, which is good -- the young know no fear. Many times my father hasn't spared me in the press, but a lot of that, throwing my books across the room and such, was just to scandalize interviewers -- we've always had a good personal relationship. It's natural for the young to admire older writers, and for them, in turn, to despise those writers coming up.

"There's a cosmic possibility, in a real imaginative way, that this book has brought everything around. Until 1980 I had jobs, the Times Literary Supplement and then the New Statesman, a very lively literary weekly. The operating policy was that only absolute geniuses should be allowed in. Anything less than outright genius -- a remorselessly nitpicky thing I did on Norman Mailer comes to mind -- could not be tolerated. It was an Oedipal thing, killing the father figure and clearing the rackets for yourself. But that was all in my late twenties; I'm less inclined to beat people up now. The English press has a kind of inbred hostility, much more vigorous than America, but when you're on the receiving end, it palls very quickly.

"The reviews for The Information have been generally fairer and kinder here, but absolutely rancid in England. Unlike America, the feeling is if a book gets a lot of money, it can't be good. And then with the money in hand I'm supposed to take anything else without fucking complaint, as if I'm some kind of scarecrow. The book took me five years to write, and the advance included a book of short stories, as well. But with every novel, for some reason, I've rubbed people up in the wrong way. Brian De Palma once said that he was at a career point where he was ready for dignity, but it never comes in England, you never get that. Though it'd be worrying if you did get dignity, ruinous to be considered a national treasure, people prattling on about what a contribution you'd made. That would catapult you into an orgy of craziness."

To add insult to the injury of Amis's advance, The Information is also a wonderfully absorbing novel, raucous and politically incorrect, cruel and true. The story revolves around the tortured friendship of two very different writers, the press inevitably drawing analogies to Amis's competitive relationship with Julian Barnes. In the book, Richard Tull is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking dysfunctional nightmare of impotence, a spectacularly arcane failure with two sons and a long-suffering wife, working on an impenetrable novel called Untitled and a scholarly tome (The History of Increasing Humiliation) while eking out a living with virulent book reviewing. His college roommate, best friend, and worst enemy is Gywn Barry, a talentless Scotsman who has gone on to fame and fortune -- a royal wife, beautiful mistresses, movie deals -- with a series of vapid Utopian novels. To exact revenge on Barry for his fatuous glory, Tull calls in the criminal underworld of London and plots ever more complex punishments. In the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Tull's machinations endlessly rebound against him, as he's reduced to an ineffectual and venomous witness to Barry's great banquet of success.

As Gore Vidal once famously noted, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," the great man himself probably did a little dance when he'd outlasted Truman Capote. Like the characters in his book, Amis seems to be straddling two opposing dialectics: the vast vulgar fray of America and the incestuous literary whirl of London, the glittering prizes at Barry's command and Tull's debasing but somehow honorable anonymity. "I love this country," he says, sweeping his hand over the pageantry of the pool, "although I exaggerated it through the eyes of an English asshole in the book, in the great tradition of the wide-eyed Englishman abroad. Tom Wolfe, in Bonfire of the Vanities, really captured the hypocrisy of the English, who come over here to sneer and then don't want to pay for anything. But with certain exceptions, people like Don DeLillo, American literature is in a real lull, whereas 30 or 40 years ago Americans dominated the scene.

"It's often occurred to me that one of the reasons Jewish writers in the past generation prevailed so much -- all that wrestling with libidos, that sense of productive alienation -- was because all the other writers were such drunks, and among the older generation drinking was considered such a Polack asshole thing to do. That seems to have disappeared with the newer generation. But this is a field that does seem to attract a lot of substance abuse, here and in England. Mailer used to really drink. For Will Self, constant joints and drinks is a bare minimum. My dad's a big drinker, and a big worker, as well. But for me the idea of going to my desk with a hangover is unbearable; I can't do it any more, if I ever could."

The girlfriend, Isabel Fonseca, comes down from their room, and there's suddenly a certain Hamptons frisson. She's attractive and a card-carrying member of brand-name society, radiating self-assurance, style, and money. The real thing, a true perk, and Amis glows with self-mocking pride: "Julian Barnes once told me that literary success and sexual success is the one thing that's considered intolerable, and as you can see, I've had remarkable success here." The interview is pointedly winding down, as we move on to gossip and injustice, the universal language, Amis hanging tough. Asked about the contretemps with Barnes and Kavanagh, Amis weighs in with new charges: "Wylie had a better view of the big picture than Julian's wife. And she breached confidentiality: Within five minutes of our meetings with the publishers, I was being pricked by the press. I have my own grievances, and the reaction of Julian has amazed me."

But then what goes around does come around: Your friend's wife gets squeezed out of a big deal, there's going to be some damage done. Fonseca moans about how terrible the whole thing was, the press attentions that accompanied the deal and their courting, although the wife left behind with two kids no doubt has her own sad stories. Amis bridles at the suggestion that the controversy may have resulted from the public holding novelists to higher standards, and reels off a learned list of brilliant moral messes: "You can't make any distinctions about writers on the basis of what their lives are like. In fact, they tend to have even more chaotic personal lives." It's turning a bit Gywn Barryish, all the self-pity, rationalizations, and random hurts of success, a line from the book ("Writers are nightmares from which you cannot awake") capturing the eternal illusions of art. Forever onto end, Amis remains ahead of the game, terminally ironic and clever, but perhaps the seismographic image that runs through his book -- the rhythms of dark knowledge that come in the night -- is the price of life, the toll that must be paid when you win.

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Tom Austin