Men bad, women good

Peeling back the veneer of civility with a sneer

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Xan Meo, the fictional famous actor and budding author of Martin Amis’ new novel Yellow Dog, goes out for a drink one night and gets his head bashed in by a man who mutters a cryptic accusation before delivering the life-altering blows. Thus begins a brutal and raw satire on those things that — most of the time — lie just under the facade of a man’s “civility” and “respectability.” For instance, the craving to bash another man’s skull in, to be awash in the spoils of bloody victories. Vengeance. Destruction. Power. Those things that turn fathers into child molesters. Those things that turn loving hands into instruments of dominance and torture and rape. Men covet in Yellow Dog, and women suffer at their feet. Amis even has a corpse attempting to crash the airplane that his widow is flying in.

Yellow Dog has a simple thesis: Men bad, women good. That’s not to say it is written in a simple and direct way. Even its minor characters are bestowed with complex motives and mouths full of long, introspective speeches. Amis’ piercing, sarcastic sneer services the black humor found throughout Yellow Dog, but Amis too often blunts the story’s impact by establishing a cold and intellectual stuffiness between the reader and his characters. Real human beings don’t talk or act the way the characters do in Yellow Dog, so the message of this tale can be unfortunately ignored.

Yellow Dog is about the aforementioned Xan Meo and the tragic, violent places he unlocks while he attempts to undergo not only a physical rehabilitation, but a moral one as well. His wife, Russia, boots him out of his own house after suffering bravely with his newfound angst and accompanying creepy preoccupation with their daughter. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed this seemingly random act of violence against him.

Yellow Dog is also about the King of England, Henry IX, who is being blackmailed by an unknown snoop who has sent the king pictures of his beloved daughter, the princess, bathing in one of their castles. The blackmailer has sent only a still of what turns out to be a video of her sharing that majestic bathtub with an unknown paramour. The king’s right-hand man, Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, attempts to get to the bottom of this treachery while at the same time continuing his duties as facilitator of the King’s infidelities, which include the Chinese beauty, He Zizhen. Brendan’s got a thing for the princess himself, and seeing her exploited in this way is driving him batty.

The most interesting character — and the one whom Amis uses to unleash his most ferocious attack on modern social mores — is Clint Smoker, writer for the shameless and wildly popular gossip rag The Morning Lark. This is the kind of paper that leads with stories of men arrested for masturbating in public. The rag has advice columnists make up the salacious letters that they answer, and reporters willing to sleep with a famous soccer player so that they can splash the pictures on the front page when the wife “accidentally” discovers the act. Amis blesses Clint with an impossibly small penis, which he has grown accustomed to as a source of humiliation: “I can’t feel you Clint. I’m trying, but you’re not there”. His frustrations take him to California where he becomes a “patient” at the Academy for Men of Compact Intromission.

And then there’s that corpse flopping around the baggage compartment on a flight from London to New York.

Yellow Dog does land quite a few brilliantly crafted blows to the bread-and-circuses, fucking-and-fighting madness that ensnares much of the modern world. The harsh light it sheds on these realities is dimmed considerably when the novel gets bogged down in it’s own self-conscious cleverness. The aloof, postmodernist tone it often takes keeps Yellow Dog from really driving the stake through its subject’s heart. A satire must be smart and funny to really do its job, and too often Yellow Dog only gets it half right.

As one of the reigning bad boys of Brit lit, it bears noting, Amis is news whatever he does (and whatever he writes). Yellow Dog has been the subject of a royal row that began even before its publication in England last summer — “either an embarrassment or a masterpiece, depending on which critics you listen to,” was the way The New York Times put it. Hey, listen to this critic: This mutt is neither.

E-mail Dan DeMaggio at [email protected].