foonery and delusion. Like Swift andrnWaugh, he takes ferocious delight in displayingrnpeople at their ugliest, their mostrnswinish, their most feckless.rnAmis likes to take us inside his narrativesrnand show us how he works his tricks.rnIt’s the postmodern thing, but with nonernof the solemn self-importance Americanrnpractitioners flaunt. Amis sacrificesrnverisimilitude for a legitimate purpose:rnDoing so enables him to keep his distancernfrom his disturbing subject matter.rnThis leaves him room for the poise andrnwit necessary to delineate a metaphysicallyrnrepellent world without succumbingrnto its cynicism. Things may bernbloody awful, but that’s no excuse for losingrnyour sense of humor. Or your hope,rnwhich, in the final analysis, may be thernsame thing.rnThis strategy is on exhibit once againrnin Heavy Water, a collection of storiesrnwhich includes seven previously publishedrnworks and two new ones. Thesernnarratives frequently resemble tightropernwalks over an abyss. Like a seasonedrnshowman. Amis rises superbly to therntechnical challenges of each feat, all thernwhile making sure we do not lose sight ofrnthe awful emptiness that lurks beneathrnhis performance.rnIn “Straight Fiction,” he turns humanrnrelations inside out. We find ourselves inrna world in which homosexuality is thernnorm. People shrink from the spectaclernof pregnancy as if it were a disease worsernthan A I D S . They are alarmed to learnrnthat San Francisco has become “thernstraight capital of the world,” wherern”breeders” have the audacity to holdrnStraight Freedom Day parades. Againstrnthis background, Cleve, the gentle andrntolerant gay protagonist, undergoes anrnidentity crisis. He meets a pregnantrnwoman in a Greenwich Village coffeernshop and finds her unaccountably fascinating.rnHis friends begin to worry aboutrnhim. Whenever they can take a breakrnfrom their relentless bed-swapping andrnanonymous alleyway assignations, theyrnwarn him against his perverted interest inrna breeder. At first, the story seems to be arnlesson in tolerance, a what-if-the-tableswere-rnturned sketch. But the politicallyrncorrect will not be reassured by its depictionrnof gay culture regnant. Certainlyrnnot in this scene: Postcoital homosexualsrnwatch television to relax after their exertions,rnonly to be deeply offended andrnthoroughly sickened by film footage runrnin “queasy propaganda slo-mo” showingrn”women and young children at play” onrn”a green hillside.”rnBut Amis is an equal-opportunityrnbasher, and the hetero male gets his inrn”Let Me Count the Times.” Here, Amisrnridicules the contemporary obsessionrnwith rating, measuring, and quantifyingrnsex. Vernon, an otherwise conventionalrnand happily married businessman, decidesrnone day to keep score. He findsrnthat, on average, he makes love to hisrnwife “three and a half times a week.”rnThen, refining his study, he tallies whatrnmight be delicately designated theirrnClinton variations. For him, it is “everyrnfourth coupling, on average, or 45.625rntimes a year, or .8774038 times a week.”rnHer average turns out to be “60.8333rntimes a year, or 1.1698717 times a week.”rnThen, on a rare business trip away fromrnhome, he decides he cannot compromisernhis averages. Although there arernwomen in the hotel bar, he does notrnwant to cheat. Instead, he repairs to hisrnroom and resorts to something he has notrndone in years. In no time at all, he becomesrna champion of what used to berncalled self-abuse. Soon he is “averagingrn3.4 times a day, or 23.8 times a week, orrnan insane 1241 times a year.” But, as hisrnorgasms multiply, he is puzzled that hisrnrelations with his wife are declining drastically.rnHe is forced to turn to images.rnToo refined for real pornography, he atrnfirst finds sufficient provocation amongrnthe photos in his wife’s fashion magazines.rnLater, with quality his watchword,rnhe progresses to the great heroines of literature.rn”After quick flings with Emily,rnGriselda, and Criseyde,” he goes on tornhave a “strapping weekend with thernGood Wife of Bath.” Then, in a fit ofrnerotic delirium, he very nearly takes thernnext logical step. “Confusedly and veryrnbriefly he consider[s] running away withrnhimself” The end of obsessive sex, itrnseems, is what we see so much of today: arnloony, loveless narcissism.rnIn “The State of England,” Amis visitsrnone of his favorite milieus: the environsrnof the semi-criminal, partially employed,rnand remarkably well-heeled underclass.rnWe meet Big Mai, an aging part-timernbouncer and full-time thug, dutifully attendingrnparents’ day at his son’s school,rn”a smart one, or at least an expensivernone.” Mai is nothing if not upwardlyrnmobile. He has been told that all the oldrnbarriers have been knocked flat:rnClass and race and gender werernsupposedly gone. Right thinkersrneverywhere were claiming thatrnthey were clean of prejudice, thatrnin them the inherited formulationsrnhad at last been purged.rnBut he has doubts, and why wouldn’t he?rnHe is a man marked by class, as the storyrnmakes literally and painfully clear. It isrnvisible in the wound he received thernnight before. Although he keeps a cellrnphone clapped to his ear, his technologicallyrncertified affluence cannot disguisernthe hideous, underclass gash throbbingrnalong his jaw—a souvenir from a scufflernwith some opera-goers who caught himrntampering with their luxury cars and beatrnhim silly with a pipe wrench. Long livernclass warfare!rnIn the collection’s most playful story,rn”The Janitor on Mars,” Amis puts hisrncards on the table. In this extravagant sciencernfiction parody, a foul-mouthedrnrobot janitor left behind by a long extinctrnMartian civilization cleans up some cosmicrnloose ends for the benightedrndenizens of the third planet. He firstrnmakes it clear how contempfibly low ourrnspecies ranks in the fiercely monitoredrnhierarchy that prevails among the numerousrncivilizations inhabiting the “Ultraverse.”rnWhile Martians were “up andrnrunning” 3.4 billion years ago, life onrnearth was “still a bubble of fart gas.rnCoop. Macrobiotic yoghurt left out inrnthe sun.” Finally, however, he concedesrnthat humans have one distinction, and arncharming one at that. All other life formsrnin the Ultraverse are driven to achievernthe same goal: “the superimposition ofrnthe will.” On this front, humans are atrnleast somewhat different. “Your sciencernand politics were . . . brutally depressedrnin order to foreground your art.” Howeverrnretrograde, the janitor finds this almostrntouching. We have the ability to surrenderrnour will to dominate in order to contemplaterndisinterestedly the design of existence.rnFor Amis, art is clearly the avenue tornredemption. It is the one pursuit inrnwhich we can step aside from personalrnand ideological interest. It encourages arnselfless contemplation of reality as mediatedrnthrough aesthetic design. Could itrnbe that it might also fill that God-sizernhole that troubles him? If art can unearthrndesign in the rancid clay of existence,rncan intimations of a Designer bernfar behind?rnGeorge McCartney teaches English atrnSt John’s University.rnMARCH 1999/35rnrnrn