"Yellow Dog." By Martin Amis. Miramax Books. 340 Pages. $24.95.
One of the many themes percolating in Martin Amis' latest novel is society's increasingly disturbing preoccupation with fame. Given that his books inevitably spark vitriolic media feeding-frenzies almost as captivating and strange as the British author's prose, it's hard to resist matching fiction to reality.
Let's hope that Amis shares none of the qualities that stain most of the male characters in the entertaining, provocative "Yellow Dog."
Amis' men are paragons of nastiness - from incest to rabid misogyny to love of all things violent and pornographic. It is a testament to the author's brilliant comic timing - along with our relentlessly politically correct world - that the novel's most vile characters elicit the biggest (if slightly shamefaced) laughs. Their best lines, though, cannot be repeated without an under-17 warning.
The middling British actor and writer Xan Meo acquires his brutishness after being clobbered on the head by mysterious assailants. Once a "perfect" husband and father, he undergoes a dramatic devolution, fantasizing about violent revenge and entertaining sexual thoughts about his young daughter.
But like Darth Vader before him, Xan is never quite overtaken by the dark side. His struggle to regain his former self forms the novel's compelling and oddly tender core.
Several arduously intersecting plots jostle around him: the tabloid hack Clint Smoker; the aging, vicious Joseph Andrews; the wonderfully bland King Henry IX of England; and the malevolent corpse Royce Traynor. But Xan's rethinking of the world and of his place in it more than make up for any overwriting on Amis' part.
The post-trauma Xan is more disturbing but also more alive and complex than the bionic man who preceded him. One of his new thoughts (and a recurrent idea in the novel) is that modern-day relations between the sexes have sacrificed honesty and heat to achieve a somewhat shallow stability. Learning to live with the weight of the past without giving into it is the novel's defining tension.
"Unconsciously, and not for long at a time, men miss women being tractable, and women miss men being decisive; but we can't say that," Xan writes to his wife, Russia, after she sends him packing.
You sense that if Xan could manage to get his baser impulses in check, his relationship with his wife and children would emerge a richer, more fully felt bond. It's impossible not to share his great hope for recovery, which he dares not reach for, because "with it, or instead of it, might come pain and grief of the same size."
Unlike Xan, if Smoker ever had a hidden heart of gold, it has long since been melted down into less illustrious material. As the novelty of Smoker's foulness wears off, so will many readers' tolerance for him.
He writes of the 77-year-old victim of a violent mugging, "she's been stinking up the place for long enough, hasn't she? When they get like that, they're better off dead."
His column is interrupted by a potential conquest's e-mail about her father's cancer, and Smoker muses that such trauma could be a boon, as "you get credit for not being dead. For once in your life."
Amis' take on yellow journalism is entertaining, but, much like those doctored magazine covers at supermarket checkout lines, there is more flash than substance. Compelling moments and themes are lost in the verbal pyrotechnics.
Such overcrowding hounds "Yellow Dog." As the novel's unrelenting exploration of the male id continues in Southern California's thriving pornography industry, Amis' interlocking plots threaten to collapse his critique of 21st-century culture.
But threatening is not the same as overwhelming. Though Amis' reach occasionally gets him in trouble, it also creates a sense of layered realities and perceptions that capture the pervasive sense of unreality and dislocation in much of contemporary society.
In lesser hands, "Yellow Dog" would flop. Despite occasional falters, Amis makes it fly.