Martin Amis is an artist of airports and transatlantic travel: You can almost smell the duty-free in his prose. His finest novel, London Fields (1989), is a mesmerizing epic of lowlife crime and semiprofessional darts, and it opens with the view from the JFK red-eye into Heathrow. “Shaken awake to a sticky bun at 1.30 in the morning, my time,” the narrator tells us, “I moved to a window seat and watched through the bright mists the fields forming their regiments, in full parade order, the sad shires, like an army the size of England.”
In Amis’s new novella, House of Meetings, our hero returns to the shuttered home of his nephew, a private in the Soviet army who has just been killed in Afghanistan, and pauses at the door. “You may wonder how I had the leisure to do it,” he comments, “but I thought of Wilfred Owen.” He then gives a short summary of Owen’s famous poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” a mournful prayer for those young Englishmen dead in the mud of France, unable to hear the “bugles calling for them from sad shires.”
Samson Young, the narrator of London Fields, is a cynical B-list American novelist who apartment-swaps his way to London to finish his new book. The nameless speaker in House of Meetings is an extravagant Russian bruiser who survives a decade in a gulag labor camp and tells of the collapse of his soul through forty years of Soviet history. It may come as a surprise, then, that both should borrow those same “sad shires” from the wistful World War I poet. But Amis’s narrators often like to borrow things, literary and material, that aren’t strictly theirs: a line of poetry, another man’s lover, certain biographical details. His novels usually star a central character who resembles the novelist in age and interests: Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers (1973), Xan Meo in Yellow Dog (2003), a character called Martin Amis in Money (1984). They share a tone of literate distance or, as the Amis stand-in and failed novelist Richard Tull describes his own prose style in The Information (1995), a voice that’s “urban, erotic and erudite.”
Amis is a writer deeply conscious of his literary and social status. He is the son of the famous English comic novelist Kingsley Amis, a fact frequently raised in the great flood of media attention he generates in Britain. The profiles riff on the same material: Kingsley’s complicated marital arrangements, Martin’s teeth and huge advances, his second wife’s big house in the Hamptons, his ease, his patrician charm. Academics ponder his Oedipus complex; the tabloids make the same points in snide asides. “Lucky Martin,” they call him, after his father’s famous first novel, Lucky Jim, or “Smarty Anus.” The London Daily Mail ran a long, envious account of the launch party for House of Meetings.
These are, of course, Amis’s own fictional concerns in miniature. The Information is an uproarious story of literary envy (involving a character more than a little reminiscent of Amis’s estranged friend Julian Barnes), and Money is, after all, called Money. His novels love little more than a rotting body or a wounded family, and they revel in nicknaming and wordplay. A haircut is, in Money, a “rug-rethink”; in London Fields a car is an “A-to-B device.”