Any reader familiar with Martin Amis’ novels—especially his most recent, Money: A Suicide Note (1984)—will not be surprised by the relentlessly contemptuous tone of The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, a collection of his essays and articles on America and Americans. While Amis confesses at the outset that he “feel[s] fractionally American” (his wife, we are told, is one of ours), he makes a heroic effort to distinguish himself from the America so superficially depicted in this slovenly little book.

Roughly half the pieces in The Moronic Inferno are book reviews, all of which cover contemporary American novelists: Vidal, Roth, and Heller (Amis is nothing if not impeccably trendy in his tastes). They’re hardly the sort of writers to evoke profundity in any reviewer. There are a few insights, however: contrasting, for example, the relative sophistication of Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead with his later efforts. Amis says, “The novel was impossibly adult: the immaturity was all to come.” Amis views this immaturity in both writers and their work as somehow an inevitable consequence of pursuing a life of letters in this Republic. He seems wholly unaware that Walker Percy and Robert Penn Warren have created formidable oeuvres without embracing the public and private silliness of Mailer and the New York scene.

Amis’ literary icon—the sole island of sanity and culture in Philistine America—is Saul Bellow: “Saul Bellow really is a great American writer. I think that in a sense he is the writer that the twentieth century has been waiting for. . . . Bellow has made his own experience resonate more memorably than any living writer.” Now, Bellow is a good novelist, but it is hard to believe that his experience has resonated more memorably than Solzhenitsyn’s. Moreover, Amis is too reverential toward Bellow’s fiction (The Dean’s December, a disappointing book even for a Bellow admirer, is given a flattering review) and his opinions on American decadence. And it is with the latter that Amis is most concerned. In his chats with Bellow, Amis rarely brings up literary subjects; instead. Bellow is queried about politics and the corrupt sensibility of acquisitive America. He tells Amis that “this is not an art society. It is a money society, a pleasure society.” Amis, alas, reports this indictment with sycophantic glee.

In his essay on Joan Didion, Amis reveals more than he intended: “All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” and what he obviously finds most deplorable about America is its tawdriness, something that not only excites but titillates him. Not surprisingly, then, his essays on American “culture” are merely trips through the menagerie—namely, Elvis, Palm Beach, Hugh Hefner, and so on. There is something almost pathetic in this unfailingly parochial view of America.

“Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS,” Amis’ most consistent attempt at seriousness in The Moronic Inferno, is well researched; but his failure to comprehend the moral facet of this behaviorally based disease is typical. That is, he is aware that the homosexual “life-style” (not “lifechoice,” as Amis erroneously says we call it) was before AIDS savagely promiscuous; he notes, for instance, that “the median number of sexual partners for gay American AIDS patients is over eleven hundred.” Yet Amis, so quick to satirize dissolute behavior in general, tells us that the homosexual revolution “was, on the whole, a vivid and innocuous adventure, one that seemed to redress many past confusions.” Who’s confused?

Amis has already displayed considerable literary talents, and it is lamentable that The Moronic Inferno should disclose a blinkered and gratuitously condescending view of America, a country that he has never, really, visited.


[The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, by Martin Amis (New York: Viking Press) $16.95]