Martin Amis‘ Lionel Asbo: State of England is a character study of a man who never changes. A career criminal who lives in the projects, Lionel Asbo becomes the primary caretaker of his orphaned nephew—Desmond Pepperdine. While in prison, Lionel wins the lottery—13.5 million pounds and he remains the same.
Lionel takes in Desmond out of loyalty but not affection. He doesn’t actually like his family: he fights with his brothers and threatens to beat any man that goes near his single mother. He calls both his mother and his deceased sister sluts. And having rejected Desmond’s need for physical contact, Lionel tells his nephew:
“. . . I reckon you doing all right, Des. Since I took you under me wing. Gaa, the state you were in when I come to you rescue. Crying youself to sleep at night. You was . . . you were always brushing up against me for a hug, like a cat. And I’d say, Get of, you little fairy. Get off, you little poof. I’d say, If you want to ponce a cuddle you can go roun to you gran’s. But now,” he said, ” you doing all right.” (Amis, 45)
Without any regard for Desmond’s safety, Lionel raises attack pit bulls in their apartment. While in prison, Lionel charges Desmond to feed them hot tabasco sauce, get them drunk once a week, and beat them on a regular basis. He takes Desmond to strip clubs and continues to fight, resulting in prison sentences every few years. It is while in prison that Lionel wins the lottery.
When released, Lionel’s every wild expenditure, ridiculous outfit, and low class comment is catalogued and ridiculed by the press. He hires a publicist and enters into a very public relationship with a poet. Lionel quickly becomes the darling of London and projects a new personality but he remains the same self-centered sociopath. He enjoys wasting money but refuses to help any of his broke relatives that struggle to survive, including his nephew. Even though Lionel could buy his old apartment building, he refuses to give up his room in the two bedroom apartment. In fact, he stores stolen goods there, and begins to stay there once a week, raising more pit bulls and starting more fights.
Attempting to redefine his public persona, Lionel makes a series of superficial changes. And it works, the journalists love him and slant stories in his favor. But Amis’ authorial voice is present, and we see Lionel as a despicable character, one that never develops or changes (even though he has a 13.5 million reasons to). And that is the point, that the man doesn’t change, but the public’s perception does. Amis describes Lionel as “a white-van man in a black mink coat” (175). It doesn’t matter what he looks like because he will always be a criminal.
Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. New York: Vintage International, 2012.