All for a Liberace Smile? Amis in the Dentist’s Chair

Experience: A Memoir , by Martin Amis. Talk Miramax Books, 406 pages, $23.95.

In London, thanks to a series of absurd pseudoscandals whipped up by the British press, every reader of novels knows the dirt on Martin Amis. They know where he lives, how much money he’s made, how many kids he has and who their mothers are. If ever it looks like “Smarty Anus” is misbehaving, headlines tell the tale.

In New York, the press has yet to develop a sustained fascination with the intimate details of his existence, and only the media junkies in the book business care about his terrible teeth, his divorce or his ex-lovers (one of whom, Tina Brown, is publishing his new book, a memoir called Experience ). Readers here know him as the author of two best sellers, London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995), though perhaps they’ve also read Money (1984) and a few of his 11 other books. His fans prize his cleverness and playfulness, his daring and his bold, energetic and beautifully controlled prose style.

American readers confronted with Experience will surely agree that the press should get off his back, that he should be allowed to go about his business unharassed. Indeed, American readers may wonder why the 50-year-old Mr. Amis, “a novelist … trained to use experience for other ends,” has chosen, as he puts it, “to speak, for once, without artifice” in the now-ubiquitous autobiographical mode.

His excuse is the death of his father in 1995. Kingsley Amis, a novelist, poet and critic, was very well known in the United Kingdom (he was knighted in 1990), and was once upon a time a best-selling author in the United States, though nowadays on this side of the Atlantic, his ferociously comic first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is pretty much his only claim to fame. Experience , Martin explains, is a commemoration of the irascible Sir Kingsley, and also an account of a “literary curiosity”–a father-son duo of prolific, successful writers.

In Britain, the month of May has been an Amis double whammy: In tandem with the son’s memoir came the father’s collected letters, a 1,000-page tome. Kingsley’s correspondence has not found a U.S. publisher, which is too bad, because his brawling comic genius and fearless honesty–especially in the letters to his great friend, the poet Philip Larkin–more than compensate for a profusion of curmudgeonly harumphing. A tiny taste: Writing to historian Robert Conquest about the breakup of his second marriage, Amis notes with bitter bravado that he hasn’t “set eyes on the bag” in eight years and wishes the end had come a decade earlier. Then he waxes philosophical–”Well, it’s all experience, though it’s a pity there had to be so much of it.”

Unfortunately, Martin’s Experience is more about his own than his dad’s. Unfailingly unchronological (we learn about the day 15-year-old Martin lost his virginity–to a girl he met in a Wimpy bar–on page 294) and diffuse in its apparent aims, the memoir wanders off just when we want it to settle down and concentrate. There’s the story of Martin’s cousin, abducted and murdered by a serial killer, her fate a mystery for two decades. There’s the story of his illegitimate daughter, whom he meets for the first time when she’s 19. And there’s the story of his terrible teeth. There’s not enough, as far as I’m concerned, about that “literary curiosity”–the business of father and son being in the same business.

Martin excuses Kingsley’s habitual drunkenness with the observation that a “writer’s life is all anxiety and ambition–and ambition, here, is not readily distinguishable from anxiety.” How fully did father and son share the writer’s ambition and anxiety? How did they manage, if they managed, to keep from making it worse for each other? Booze takes the edge off, sure–but then why isn’t Martin a drunk, too?

Amis père and fils forged a strong, enduring bond of love, though in his last years Kingsley strained it with blasts of right-wing provocation and a sorry physical dependence. Did we need to know about the old man’s “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”? Or about the time he “openly peed into a mop-bucket”? (His son assures us that he would have omitted this humiliating tidbit from his memoir had it not already been published elsewhere.) Martin yearned for a second father: his literary hero, Saul Bellow, whose novels Kingsley scorned. Martin claims that he is Mr. Bellow’s “ideal reader”; and though Martin clearly treasures Kingsley’s books, he states–without elaboration–that he is not his father’s “ideal reader.” There are depths here as yet unexplored.

Freud, Mr. Amis reminds us, had much to say about teeth: “how, for instance, dreams of tooth loss are manifestations of sexual doubt and fear.” Dental drama dominates the first half of this memoir; it inspires this dazzling passage: “I know all about the expert musicianship of toothaches, their brass, woodwind and percussion and, most predominantly, their strings, their strings (Bach’s ‘Concerto for Cello’ struck me, when I recently heard it performed, as a faultless transcription of a toothache–the persistence, the irresistible persuasiveness). Toothaches can play it staccato, glissando, accelerando, prestissimo, and above all fortissimo. They can do rock, blues and soul, they can do doo-wop and bebop, they can do heavy metal, rap, punk and funk. And beneath all this anarchical stridor there was a lone, soft, insistent voice, always audible to my abject imagination: the tragic keening of the castrato.”

Yes, Mr. Amis had tooth troubles; he had them all yanked out. To pay for his oral and maxillofacial surgery, he demanded a $1 million advance for The Information . To get that advance he ditched his old agent (Pat Kavanagh, wife of his pal Julian Barnes) and hired Andrew Wylie (known in the British press as “the Jackal”). At about the same time, Mr. Amis left his wife, the mother of his two sons, and moved in with the writer Isabel Fonseca. The British press turned all this into a sordid story of betrayal and vanity, and Mr. Amis’ unstated aim here seems to be to assert beyond any doubt that he had his mouth rebuilt not for “a Liberace smile,” but because he had no choice. If you don’t already know about the gossip column calumny ( cosmetic surgery? Shame on him! ), if you don’t know who Pat and Julian and Andrew and Isabel are, Experience will seem cryptic and coy, its insistence on dentistry baffling.

Mr. Amis doesn’t seem to think much of memoirs (which is odd when you consider that his other literary hero is Nabokov, and Speak Memory , Nabokov’s autobiography, is his masterpiece). The author of Experience declares that “the fit reader, the ideal reader, regards a writer’s life as just an interesting extra”; he argues that “writers write far more penetratingly than they live. Their novels show them at their very best, making a huge effort: stretched until they twang.” Though there are lovely moments here (as when Martin is playing pinball in a cafe in Spain, “feeling the warm breath of raptly attendant niños on my fingers”), he doesn’t seem willing to stretch on every page. He claims, of course, to be speaking “without artifice”–that’s both not true (remember the toothache aria) and too true.

So skip this scattered self-defense and read instead two great first novels, Kingsley’s Lucky Jim and Martin’s The Rachel Papers (1973)–see whether they twang in harmony.

Adam Begley is books editor of The New York Observer.