REVIEWS ought to be of books, not authors, but in some cases the distinction is more easily stated than sustained. An author can be famous for a fastidious avoidance of publicity, like Thomas Pynchon, or for courting it, like Norman Mailer. It must be close to impossible to read the books of either without thinking of the personalities projected, silently or noisily, by the men themselves, their publicists, and the media generally. Of course, there are hundreds of novels by authors who aren't famous in this way, but they and their publishers almost certainly wish they were. The energetic or mysterious public images of the writers are reflected back onto their books, and we buy the books less because we seek an uncluttered aesthetic experience than because we want to know what their celebrated authors have been up to lately. They themselves can hardly be indifferent to this situation, and the history of modern fiction provides many instances of authors getting thoroughly confused about their aims, achievements, and deserts; one need mention only Hemingway. He remarked, in The Sun Also Rises, that "nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters," but he thought that as a writer he should try. He succeeded, at least if public notice is the criterion; but he was too intelligent not to understand the cost of this irrelevant triumph, musing in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "writing, at its best, is a lonely life.... [The writer] grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates."
A great deal of precious energy is wasted in this way, and energy has a peculiar importance, perhaps especially where American male authors are concerned. Saul Bellow thought that "the code of the athlete, of the tough boy," was "an American inheritance ... from the English gentleman -- that curious mixture of striving, asceticism and rigor, the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great." Nowadays there is evidence that some Englishmen are trying to retrieve their lost virtue, and the way they go about it is to imitate American energy. Nothing is more inventive or changes as fast as American slang, and nobody notices and imitates it more promptly than certain English writers. A whole generation of sophisticated English readers believes that nowadays the best writing in the language is American -- Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, and, to go back a little, Saul Bellow.
MARTIN Amis, who has often announced his special devotion to Bellow, shares this passion for the latest ways of talking American. From the outset of his career he has been a Bellovian tough boy. We know, or think we know, a lot about him, and not only from his novels. He is said to have been expelled from school. He gave the hero of his first novel, published when he was twenty-four, a voice with a "habitual ironic twang, excellent for the promotion of oldster unease" -- his own voice, perhaps, except that the "ironic twang" is American, or at any rate "mid-Atlantic." Money, one of his best novels, is set in America, and so is this new one. Amis has recently announced his intention of emigrating, we learn from the newspapers, which regularly make a fuss about his life -- the size of his advances, his passion for snooker, his failure to win the Booker Prize, the disastrous condition of his teeth, his divorce, his fractured friendships with his agent and her husband, the novelist Julian Barnes. And behind all this is the odd fact, now seen as almost too familiar to be worth mentioning, that he is the son of a celebrated novelist, from whom he has inherited an English brand of elegant misanthropy and an interest in the satirical possibilities of virtuoso syntax and popular semantic variations -- admittedly, Americanized to a degree that would probably not have greatly pleased Kingsley Amis.