SUCCESS By Martin Amis Crown. 224 pp. $15.95
Martin Amis' third novel, "Success," published in England in 1978, appears in this country for the first time thanks to his new publisher, presumably as a way of welcoming Amis to its list and demonstrating its support for his work. That's a fine gesture, one for which authors invariably are grateful, but in this case it seems rather a counterproductive one. "Success" is a bad book, a nasty little piece of juvenilia that can do nothing to enhance, and much to diminish, Amis' standing among American readers.
It is in fact quite difficult to believe that the same person who wrote "Success" is also the author of "Money," Amis' fifth book. Though both novels treat the subject of decadence among the wealthy few, and though neither shies from the profane and/or scatological, virtually all similarities end there. "Money," which was published 2 1/2 years ago, is a tough, courageous, hugely funny book that is as notable for its maturity as for its irreverence; "Success," by contrast, is never more than mildly amusing and fails in all instances to rise above the puerile.
Describing the novel is something of a challenge for the reviewer in a family newspaper, for at times it seems that every other word is the notorious four-letter job that begins with "f"; the difficulty is compounded because it further seems that all the others are four-letter ones that begin with "c" or "s" or "c" again. Certainly readers have gotten quite accustomed to these words and are unoffended when their use is legitimate or necessary, as, when writing about contemporary life, it often is. But Amis uses them in the style of a boy in a public lavatory smearing the walls with every dirty word he knows in the ardent hope of shocking the adults speechless; it is a tiresome exercise, and an immature one.
Beyond that, it is done to no apparent purpose except to offend; none of the noisy cursing in "Success" helps the reader understand any of Amis' characters, nor does it enrich the decadent atmosphere that he strives to create. When Terence Service opens Chapter 3 with "You'll have to excuse me for a moment," and then spews out four paragraphs of nonstop obscenity, it is neither revealing nor funny, as Amis clearly intends it to be. It is merely smutty.
Terry Service is the character for whom we are meant to feel sympathy, just as we are to feel contempt for his foster brother, Gregory Riding, but contempt for both is more the order of the day. Not in some time has a novel come along in which every character, with not a single exception, is so thoroughly loathsome; "Money" is populated by a disagreeable lot but its central character, John Self, is granted a measure of humanity that elevates both him and the book itself. There is no such redemption in "Success."
We're supposed to feel sorry for Terry because his sister was killed by their father when he was 9 years old and, more recently, because he has been romantically unsuccessful -- Amis, to put it mildly, phrases it otherwise -- with women. But sympathy must be earned, and Terry's is not; his sniveling self-pity is not ameliorated by his occasional attempts at self-mockery, and his humor is not humorous. If anything the contemptible Gregory is a trifle less intolerable, because he is at least allowed to offer an occasional cruel bon mot.
The story is meant to be about wealth and class, and about how they can be unexpectedly altered. Gregory's family, in a burst of complacent altruism, adopted the low-born Terry after the well-publicized killing, then left him to swim for himself among the alien rich. Now, as a young man, he is Gregory's foil and stooge, but the last laugh is to be his; Gregory's dissipation leads to madness, while Terry manages to make a life for himself and in the end has the upper hand.
The struggles between these two are accompanied by efforts by each to ingratiate himself with Ursula, Gregory's notably unappealing younger sister. This in turn leads to incest, and variations thereupon, and ultimately to yet more madness. The point of it all seems to be Terry's harsh judgment of Gregory and, by implication, of Ursula as well: "The world is changing. You are not protected, your father is not rich any more, and what you do suddenly counts. Madness doesn't mean maybe these days."
The only trouble with that moral is that the more you think about it, the less it means. But nothing in "Success" means as much as Amis intended it to; it's a sleeping dog that he and his publisher should have let lie.