Money, to British novelist Martin Amis, is in the same vile category as Herpes II, daytime game shows and the Long Island Expressway.
In other words, it stinks.
Put your nose to the almighty dollar and inhale the stench of greed and rotten dreams.
"Money does stink. Lit'rally," says the celebrated author of the newly published, wildly outrageous "Money: A Suicide Note." "Sex needn't stink, but money always does."
Amis himself never touches the stuff. "I'm in that brilliant position where I've got enough money so I never have to do anything about it at all. I haven't opened a bank statement for three or four years now. When I send them to my accountant at the end of the year, I slit them so at least it looks as if I've opened them.
"My hours spent with my accountant are the worst hours of my life."
Besides money, he disdains a slew of social ills: New York, people who read his books too fast, interviewers "who come thinking I'm going to be snotty. They're friendly as hell and then go back and beat me up on the typewriter," and authors who are more successful than he.
"You know that feeling when one of your peers goes down," he says with a wicked grin. "It's a real buzz. As Gore Vidal said, 'It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail.' "
And now that he has succeeded, who would he most like to see fail?
"You could say that about anyone. The heart soars like a hawk to see anyone getting rubbished."
He drags on his cigarette. "We all pretend that we're quite modest, but you can't be a puppy as a writer."
The 35-year-old son of novelist Kingsley Amis is just that -- a perverse young pup chewing at the leg of the literary establishment, barking at convention, whining for attention.
He is sitting in a Washington restaurant sipping red wine, his pale fingers cradling a hand-rolled, unfiltered cigarette, his strained smile and bad teeth all physical evidence of the Oxford-bred, "Brideshead" cynicism that prompted Newsweek to laud him as "nastier than any English novelist since Evelyn Waugh."
Amis shrugs off the comparison.
"I think I come from the other direction. He affected a sort of patrician disdain for these things. I'm more interested in developing a proletarian disdain."
If Mick Jagger could write as well as he sings, his name would be Martin Amis. They are siblings of the '60s, hipper than hip, all pouty lips and anemic pallor.
You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you.
"I'll tell you this. This is something that nobody knows. Whenever a writer looks through, say, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, he says, 'What's all this about these other guys? Why isn't it all about me?"
He sprinkles the conversation with bon mots and literary blasts from the past: Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker. Saul Bellow's name comes up once or twice. So does Bernard Shaw's.
In fact, were it not for his undisputed command of the language, his comedic genius and keen ear for dialogue, Amis might be dismissed as just another clever and, yes, snotty young Brit armed with an arsenal of Chelsea one-liners such as "Style is sort of everything and nothing, but it's mostly everything."
The waiter arrives. "Can we do this again?" Amis commands, motioning to his empty glass.
He is asked how he came up with the character of John Self, the protagonist in "Money," a bloated, self-indulgent London director of commercials whose transatlantic path to wealth and fame is paved with prostitutes, week-long hangovers, masturbatory interludes, Fastfurters, Blastburgers, Big Thick Juicy Hot Ones, drug-crazed film stars and a car called a Fiasco. Not to mention, as Amis does over another glass of wine, "sack artists, piss artists, con artists, escape artists."
Self is a man "addicted to the 20th century." A man who's going to California for a body transplant. A man who attends a performance of "Otello" and gets annoyed because it's not in English. A boogie-woogie bugle boy with a face "full of adolescent archeology and cheap food and junk money, the face of a fat snake, bearing all the signs of its sins." Which are "swearing, fighting, hitting women, smoking, drinking, fast food, pornography, gambling and hand jobs."
This guy could make the late John Belushi look like a Mormon.
In fact, Amis says, the book has received better notices in the United States than in England. "My theory is, he's the first transatlantic hero that Americans don't at all feel inferior to."
Says People magazine, "Not since novelist Joyce Cary thought up larger-than-life painter Gulley Jimson for 'The Horse's Mouth' has a novelist come up with such a repulsive . . . character . . . a sharp, surprisingly credible portrait of today's man at his most greedy, unpleasant and debauched."
Says reviewer James Atlas in Vogue, " 'Money' is gross, hectic, smart-alecky, but it's one of the funniest novels I've read since Amis senior's 'Lucky Jim.' "
Says Amis, "All I began with is the idea of a drunken Englishman trying to get a film going in New York."
An Englishman who bears no resemblance to anyone in Amis' life, including himself. "I saw someone in a pub in England who I found I spent a lot of time thinking about. People think you base characters on real people, but it's much more likely to be people you've met for 10 minutes who linger with you. If you know too much about a person, they won't fit into a novel. Novels are artificial things. They're not like life. They're much more shapely. They're not as chaotic as life."
Life, for Martin Amis, is "a process of losing," he says. "A pitiful and pathetic journey." No wonder he's chosen to wade through the cesspool of human existence for inspiration. (See also: Dark Underbelly.)
"For me as a comic writer whose main interest is pain and distress and disappointment," he says, "the book is everything that it says."
Compare it to writing home. "The letter that's all about nice weather and good food and comfortable hotels is: A, no fun to write, and B, no fun to read. The letter that's about stolen passports and diarrhea, that's the one that's fun to write and fun to read."
"We'd all," he insists, "rather read about misfortune."
And misfortune, live and in Technicolor, has long been Amis' muse. "I don't know why I'm so keen on that," he says thoughtfully. "You'll have to talk to my child psychologist."
Is he totally depraved? "Well," he says, smiling sardonically and stubbing out his cigarette, "what do you think?"
The waiter refills his glass. "You have a tiny taste of that life. You take that central bit of you, and you expand on it. Comic exaggeration takes place. You take the sinful nugget."
In "Money" that nugget is currency, as John Self lurches from London to Los Angeles trying to get financing for his film, alternately titled "Good Money" or "Bad Money." (Ironically, Amis has been commissioned to turn the novel into a screenplay.)
Money, money stinks. It really does . . . Pick up a wad of well-used notes and fan them out in your face . . . Little boys' socks and a porno headache tang, old yeast, batch, larders, damp towels, the silt from purse's seams, the sweat of the palms and the dirt in the nails of the people who handle this stuff all day, so needfully. Ah it stinks . . .
They're an odd crew, these moneymen, Miami hotel barons, Nebraskan ranching bosses, Marylander oil kings. Their only topics are moviestars and money. They talk about money in that sharky American style, as if money were the only gauge of anything, the only measure. They're pretty relaxing company, I find.
What is this obsession with moolah?
"A lot of civilized people spend an awful lot of their lives worried about money or wanting more," Amis says.
He pulls out a thin sheaf of Zig-Zag rolling papers, shakes some Virginia tobacco down a seam and rolls it up, passing it over his tongue before jabbing it between his lips. "It's not really money, it's more money. Why can't people be satisfied? Why don't people back off? People are just as greedy for their 15th million as they are for their third."
Besides money, he finds Manhattan unbearable. "I've completely gone off New York. I find it deeply uncongenial. It's become such a rich man's city. It's impossible to live a middle-class life anymore in New York. You can be rich or you can be poor. You can't be anything in between."
Amis' opinion of America in general is pretty low. But he's not prejudiced. "It's quite low of England, too."
Not all the reviews for "Money" have been positive.
New York magazine called it "a haughty, aloof novel" and "bad tempered satire."
Amis fingers the yellowing cigarette.
"I'm never sure if what I write is satire or not, but it's a satirical opinion. It's a comic opinion."
One that his father does not appreciate.
"He couldn't finish it."
The younger Amis has written four other novels, each more depraved than the last, including "Dead Babies," "Success" and "Other People." ("He couldn't read that, either.")
His first, published in 1973, was "The Rachel Papers," hailed by The Times Literary Supplement as "scurrilous, shameless and very funny . . . it's a book that will put Martin Amis on the map."
But Amis wasn't the only one to find himself on the map. In 1980 he picked up a copy of "Wild Oats," a coming-of-age novel by a young American writer named Jacob Epstein, son of prominent Manhattan editor Jason Epstein, and noticed that the author had lifted passages, verbatim, from "The Rachel Papers." The ensuing scandal was the talk of the transatlantic literary scene.
Amis doesn't want to discuss it. "I'm all talked out about it, really. I sometimes regret calling anyone's attention to it."
"The Rachel Papers," which won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award, as his father's first novel had two decades earlier, was also the only Martin Amis book that Kingsley Amis could finish.
His mother, he says, liked "Money" "very much. She actually rang me up and said, 'You know your father couldn't finish it.' I said, 'What excuse did he give this time?' She said, 'He said it was too difficult.' "
The elder novelist doesn't like modern prose, his son explains. "His favorite living author is Dick Francis, and he said recently, 'I'm not going to read any more novels that don't begin with the sentence, 'A shot rang out.' "
This from a man who shocked his own generation with the sensational "Lucky Jim."
"Do you know what Somerset Maugham said about 'Lucky Jim' when he gave it the Somerset Maugham Award? He praised the book and said, 'Mr. Amis has exactly captured this new generation of young men who are going up against convention. His ear is so exact, his eye so sure.' The next sentence he said was, 'They are scum.' "
He exhales a stream of smoke, laughing. "My father never thought of Lucky Jim as scum. I don't think of John Self as scum." He pauses. "I don't think he's as nice a guy as Lucky Jim."
So, come on, Martin, tell us what it's like to be the hottest young writer on two continents. What's it feel like?
"It doesn't feel like anything much. One of the advantages of having a father for a writer is that it doesn't seem like at all an odd way of living. Whereas it's true that any sort of fame goes to your head -- where else is it going to go? to your feet? to your legs? -- I think I am remarkably free of the usual writer's kit of envy and paranoia, particularly paranoia."
As for being a literary sensation, "It doesn't feel like that. In America, maybe it does. In London, I mean, the idea of anyone being like J.D. Salinger and having to cordon themselves behind his piranha-infested moat, it doesn't happen like that.
"I can't see any advantage to fame at all," he says. "I've looked around fame and wondered what the point of it was, and I can't see it. There's nothing in it for the famed guy. I can't see what I get out of it. I don't care which table I get in a restaurant as long as it isn't in the men's room."
He was born in Oxford, England, and educated at 13 different schools in England, Spain and the United States.
"In writing this book, I was very glad for that year in America, although I was only 10. I felt I picked up a lot of stuff. Crucially, I knew how Americans talked. It's very risky to cross the Atlantic with your ear."
He read comic books in his spare time and was "fired" from school at 13. "I didn't get going until I was 17, and then I did it all quite fast."
He attended Exeter College, Oxford, where he was awarded First Class Honors in English. After graduation he took a job with the Times Literary Supplement and wrote his first novel. Having Kingsley Amis for a father didn't hurt.
"It meant," he says, "that my first novel would have been published more or less no matter what it had been like."
He joined The New Statesman for five years, then The Observer, for which he still writes occasional pieces. (Last year author Graham Greene granted Amis a rare interview and told him he would rather live out his days in the Gulag than in California. As for Amis, he says he'll take California any day.)
He says he wrote three drafts of "Money" and was recently insulted when a London interviewer, mistaking the stream-of-consciousness prose for dictation, had the gall to ask whether the book was taped.
"It's very worked out prose," Amis says defensively.
Perhaps to ensure that readers would not confuse author with subject, he inserted a young writer into the book. His name is Martin Amis. But he says he did it because he is most guilty of manipulating Self. "I'm the one who set him up, really. I thought I ought to go on and make it clear to John Self what I'm up to."
What is equally clear is that Amis has a soft spot for the big lout.
"I always liked him, right from the start. Although I thought when I was writing it, 'Oh, Christ, is anybody else going to?' He's a universal figure. He's the figure we all are when we lock the bathroom door behind us. When we think we're not being watched. He thinks he's not being watched and yet he suspects he is. And he is. He's in a novel. When he's having his most disgraceful and private episodes, everyone's laughing at him."
He's actually not such a bad fellow, Amis says. "He had bad habits."
At the end, Self is left with nothing. A beggar on the street. "It'll do him good not to have money. At least he can't afford his vices. It was either Dorothy Parker or Bernard Shaw who said, 'All you're left with in the end is your virtue, because your vices are so trite and ridiculous.' "
The waiter arrives with the check. Amis doesn't make a move.
He doesn't carry a wallet