Wednesday, May 27, 1998

Jumping the tracks

All aboard for despair, angst, nausea and points south.

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Of all the kinds of celebrity, one would think literary fame to be the best. After all, the writer can build a stack of books between himself and his public.

Not so for Martin Amis. Born into the spotlight of his father, Kingsley Amis, little Marty was destined for the big time. Over a decade and a half, he gained a reputation as the bad boy of British letters, chronicler of desperate living in the young middling classes of the Iron Lady's England.

Then, two years ago, all hell broke loose. A midlife crisis swooped down, and Amis opted for a new wife, new agent and expensive new teeth. The British press went wild, and Amis fled to the United States, where two of his idols, Saul Bellow and John Updike, ply their trade. With that in mind, one is tempted to suggest that his latest work, Night Train, is the result of licking his wounds and rethinking his style.

Indeed, the most striking aspect of this book is its form. It's a novella, pared of digression and philosophical elaboration. The main voice belongs to Mike Hollahan, a middle-aged, butch, female cop who specializes in the articulate inarticulation one might expect from someone tired of doing the only thing she knows how to do. She likes to drink; she likes to fuck -- not so much out of pleasure as to dull the pain.

And in Night Train, the pain arrives in one big package. Astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell commits suicide, and Mike sets out, as a favor to her daddy, a retired police commissioner, to find a reason powerful enough to make a young woman fellate a pistol.

The trigger pulled, the survivors are left to deal with grief, unresolvable in Christian terms, while the reader is invited to grapple with existential questions of mortality. "Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness. You won't get there so quick, not by natural means. You buy your ticket and you climb on board. That ticket costs everything you have."

Uh-oh, you say -- Amis doing a hard-boiled cop dolled up with millennium-tinged existential angst. Raymond Chandler meets Marshall Applewhite at Camus' beachhouse. No thanks.

Really, he can't help himself. Amis is the product of '70s England when Oxbridge ponces such as himself got hopped up about nuclear weapons and the horror of annihilation. On this side of the ocean, Don Delillo bored us to tears on the topic. Perhaps sensing that he was beating a dead horse, Amis moved his cast of perpetually flawed characters onto a new crisis in a new locale.

And why not metaphysics in Chicago? The unnamed streets and sounds in Night Train clearly have vibrations of the Windy City, Bellow territory, in particular The Dean's December, the obvious touchstone for this work.

Alas, Amis' flimsy WASP morality is no match for Bellow's wizened rabbinical sagacity. One suspects Bellow would yawn at the dilemma that intrigues Amis. Jennifer Rockwell is not praised for her ability to "solve the absurd," as Camus put it, of modern life. Rather, Amis adopts Chesterton's posture that suicide is worse than murder, for everyone is killed.

Even if Jennifer found modern existence wanting, Amis appears to be saying, she had an obligation to carry on, milling in the station of quiet desperation like the rest of us until the train runs on schedule.

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