On an equatorial summer day eleven years ago, I spent a few hours with Martin Amis in his home on Strong Place in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. Assigned to interview him about his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, I began at once by asking him about all his other novels instead. What did it feel like to write Money? Is it true that Marmaduke in London Fields was based on Christopher Hitchens’s firstborn? On page 234 of The Information… and so on. Amis was very patient. He spoke movingly of Hitchens, who’d passed away just six months earlier, performed a memorable impression of a manic Robert Lowell, and recalled once running into his friend Clive James at a bus stop in London. “He was reading Tacitus… in Latin.” When the interview was over, Amis and I smoked a cigarette in his backyard.
It would gratify me to say that, as I was ferried back out the front door, Amis and I tearfully embraced and promised we would see each other again soon. (“Bye, Mart!” “Bye, Mort!”) That was certainly how things had gone down in my head the night before. (When he profiled Saul Bellow, in 1983, Amis described the interviewer’s shaming desire for “the birth of a flattering friendship.”) In reality, of course, I was merely another wild-eyed admirer, with my voice recorder and my shaking hands, asking Amis if he would mind signing a few books before I left. Anyway, my deplorably Danish sense of decorum precluded doing or saying anything that would embarrass us both. I thanked him for his time and shook his hand. I never met him again.
And yet Martin Amis’s death this spring felt like the passing of a friend. His voice has been the soundtrack—the voiceover—to most of my adult life. I discovered his work when I was eighteen and have read at least two or three of his books once a year ever since. (In my tattered copy of Money, somehow still intact, I can see, like a secular Torah, eighteen years of marginalia and underlinings.) The obsessive devotion he inspired in his admirers was unique, I think. Never broadly popular in the manner of contemporaries like Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, or Kazuo Ishiguro, Amis was in some ways a writer’s writer, a journalist’s journalist, a critic’s critic. How many drink-fogged nights have I spent in the company of fellow scribes, quoting his works from memory, all of us trying to out-Amis each other? How many copies of Money or London Fields or The Moronic Inferno have I pressed on friends, girlfriends, acquaintances, even strangers? How often, looking for the spark or flash of some better phrase, have I turned to The War Against Cliché or Visiting Mrs. Nabokov?
Surely one reason for this devotion is that Amis stirred a creative delight in his readers, an admiration for the startling inventiveness of his language. (Martianism, a brief and flashily metaphorical fashion in British poetry in the 1970s, is an anagram of Martin Amis.) He made you want to sound like him, which you couldn’t, because no one wrote like him. Here, as an example, is a description of a New York cab driver, from the opening page of Money:
My cabbie was fortyish, lean, balding. Such hair as remained scurried long and damp down his neck and shoulders. To the passenger, that’s all city cabbies are—mad necks, mad rugs. This mad neck was explosively pocked and mottled, with a flicker of adolescent virulence in the crimson underhang of the ears. He lounged there in his corner, the long hands limp on the wheel.