America is the subject of this collection of essays by the novelist, Martin Amis. Oscillating between warm affection and perfectly timed quips, Amis brings us close (or close enough to say something amusing) to the worlds of Hugh Hefner, Brian De Palma, Gore Vidal and Gloria Steinem.
Hefner gets off easy, being a relatively easy target already, as Amis says after hearing what an average day in the old guy’s life is like, ‘That’s four movie’s a day.’ Norman Mailer's career, on the other hand, gets a full moral and aesthetic interrogation in ‘Norman Mailer: The Avenger and the Bitch.’ Vidal earns referral as ‘probably the cleverest book-reviewer in the world.’
Other familiar names serve not as pillars under our romantic idea of great America but more as celebrated checkpoints, now antiquated by time and changing circumstances. One gets this feeling with the interview-less book reviews. Of Joseph Heller's God Knows, he says, ‘[the paragraphs] get bigger and bigger—and say less and less. No reader should be asked to witness an author’s private grapplings with his thesaurus.' Albert Goldman's Elvis earns a place here as ‘a prodigy of bad writing.’
His post scripts are written just as post-scripts should be. They don’t separate us from the Amis of the original article but give us a much wider perspective, sometimes to a mere tickling effect, as in the Gore Vidal piece where the reader is informed that it was Vidal who looked over his piece and changed ‘homosexual’ to ‘pansexual.’ At other times, the post scripts are explanations, not to things that were necessary to change, but things that were necessary to put back in, as was the case with ‘Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS.’
The AIDS article, as well as the article on the child-murders in Atlanta, tackle their subjects unflinchingly, not sensationally, a brutal eye turned toward the truth with an earnest, definite sense of love and duty.
Amis is not awkward in his praise as some clever revilers are. He gives the book a beginning and a coda devoted to two different articles about Saul Bellow and his works—someone who surely stands out in Amis’s mind, not only as the ‘great American novelist’ if there was ever a candidate, but as someone who has plunged the depths of America in such a way that, if there is going to be anything new to say about America, it would have to start with and surpass him.
The book stands as a wonderful account of Amis’s love affair with the country and an invitation for us to open our eyes to its peculiarities, its violence, but also to its potential, its vigor and its impossible spirit.