The Lives of Men: Martin Amis on Death, Writing and The Hitch

Inside Story: A Novel

By Martin Amis

Penguin Random House/2020

Reviewed by Lisa Van Dusen

March 9, 2021

Among the many qualities Martin Amis possesses as a novelist and essayist, one of the most underestimated may be that he’s such good company. Whether it’s an attribute more notable these days for its absence among content providers of all kinds, it is why so many of us read whatever he writes.

You know when you read Amis that, whatever the subject, you’re spending time with a narrator whose generosity of spirit, humour and courteous curation of information for your consumption have been reliably well-intentioned since The Rachel Papers thrust him out of his father, Kingsley’s, shadow in 1973.

Shadow dwelling — whether by countries that live next to a formidable neighbour or the hypervigilant offspring of famous, larger-than-life novelists — breeds powers of observation honed from a default perspective of perpetually looking outward.

In that sense, Inside Story, Amis’s latest novel (that label feels more like an inside joke to protect the guilty…there are fictionalized names and conversations that classify it as autofiction but the book does, after all, have an index), reads like an outside story, recounting as it does the deaths of the three towering men-not-his-father that the author spent much of his adult life shadowing: novelist Saul Bellow, poet Philip Larkin and essayist Christopher Hitchens.

The descriptions of Amis’s relationships with this trio — Bellow was a revered literary hero and father figure, Larkin an eccentric family friend and possible biological father (no spoilers) and Hitchens a beloved contemporary and best friend — provide the structure of a book that also offers previously published essays, musings on a relationship with the romantically ruthless amalgam Phoebe Phelps and advice on how to write, including a helpful section on “Decorum”.

More precisely, the book charts the deaths of Bellow, Larkin and Hitchens which, at this stage of Amis’s career is natural in the case of the first two and heartbreaking in the case of the third. Bellow, the Montreal-born great American novelist, died at 89 in 2005 after five wives, a Nobel Prize for literature and a final chapter defined by the agonizing overlap of the gift of a new daughter and the theft of Alzheimer’s. Larkin, the iconic post-war poet who seemingly spent his life attempting to cheat death by giving it no joy of which to rob him, died in 1985 at 63 of oesophageal cancer. Hitchens died of pneumonia after 19 months of brutal treatment for the same cancer in 2011. He was 62.

The death of Hitchens hits both the author and the reader hardest. The combination of the late journalist and brilliant contrarian’s — forgive the lack of decorum but sometimes only a cliché will do — joie de vivre and his talent for seeing through political opportunism, corruption and hypocrisy make the question of what he’d be writing today more than a wistful thought experiment. Imagine what Hitchens would have made of the Trump presidency and the spectacularly corrupt, pathologically tactical “post-truth” politics that produced it and are currently conniving to outlast it. He may have taken a few flyers in his time, but on this Hitchens surely would have been mercilessly, masterfully on the side of truth and democracy.

Amis’s recounting of the last months of Hitchens’s life in a Houston cancer treatment facility with its food courts and Jetsons-style atriums conveys the incongruity of his ultimate dateline — as if Byron died in Reno. “In the gloom of the sick chamber, all the distinctions that set one man apart from another were unforgettably perceived: he kept hold of his gaiety and his sagacity, his wit was unclouded, his reason unperplexed,” Amis writes of Hitchens’s final fight. “His human glory was not obliterated, and the hero was unsubdued. I do so want to die well…But how is it done? That is how it is done.”

There’s an unforeseeable wrinkle to absorbing this attention fixed on the deaths of three men while we’re witnessing the daily depersonalization of Josef Stalin’s self-serving quip that, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” We’re reminded that while immortality of the non-corporeal sort always confers disproportionate tragedy on the deaths of “great men”, it’s heartening these days to read homage paid and remembrance made to individual lives of any kind.

Amis’s recounting of the last months of Hitchens’s life in a Houston cancer treatment facility with its food courts and Jetsons-style atriums conveys the incongruity of his ultimate dateline — as if Byron died in Reno.

Precisely because Amis is such good company, we forgive him things that, from any other writer, might provoke something more profane than a mumbled chide. His preludial admonishment against anger as an unworthy emotion (beyond moral outrage, in fact, it’s usually a “masking” emotion…most often for fear or sadness) feels a little empathy deficient coming from a white, Oxford-educated guy with places in East Hampton and West Palm. “Pity anger — pity those who radiate it as well as those on the other end of it,” he writes. Indeed, far better to channel your fury at an unpunctual gardener into a deep-tissue massage and a martini. Likewise, the unironic comment, apropos the consolations of populism, “Do you know any reflexive anti-elitists?” Well, you tend not to bump into them in the tapas tent at the Hay Festival.

In those moments, you wish you could nudge Amis an inch or two forward on the deductive reasoning travelator he’s just prematurely hopped off of for a smoke break. The problem isn’t anti-elitism, it’s the infantilization of a cynically commodified populism that misdirectionally leverages pre-existing grievances into rage at the wrong targets to rationalize and consolidate political power among corrupted elites (see Trump, D., among others). And the reason the US health care system remains the moral outlier among industrialized nations isn’t because Americans are simply more mercenary about forcing people to choose between dying of a curable disease and going bankrupt, it’s because America is the only country where health care reform — the progress of Obamacare notwithstanding — is still overwhelmingly, insidiously racialized.

In his “Postludial” chapter, Amis begins to address Trump, race in America, what he’s learned about life, death, the moral order and the sort of current concerns we’d love to hear more about from him. He may write a novel about race in America, or another book about the Third Reich, he says. There are so many subjects — including race in America, persistent anti-Semitism, the disenchantments of technology, the war on democracy – that would benefit from his eye, ear and voice, that he should first write a book of fresh essays, if only as a public service.

And maybe then, the novel about a friendship between two rakish journos staking their claim on London back when Fleet Street was still fun and girl trouble was deciphered over cocktails as an exercise in quaintly sexist safecracking. The dialogue dance between those two is some of the best stuff in Inside Story.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.