Brit Noir

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 21 1998 3:30 AM

Brit Noir

Martin Amis does Elmore Leonard.

Night Train
By Martin Amis
Harmony Books; 175 pages; $20

38000_38531_fisher_nighttrain

Martin Amis has long evinced his fascination with American culture, so it should come as no surprise that he has brought out an American novel. Or, anyway, a simulacrum of an American novel. The work is, of course, an hommage to the police-procedural genre for which Americans are principally known overseas. This is true of most entries in the fiction wing of the body of American-culture simulacra produced by aliens. Like most items in the music department of the same phenomenon, it is a riff.

Some might glance at the book and decide that it is meant to be Amis' Elmore Leonard moment, recalling his praise for that master of fibrous plots and low-key sociology. But Night Train is light on plot and nearly Martian in its sociology, so it might better be seen as Amis' Mark Knopfler moment. Like the lead guitarist of the erstwhile Dire Straits, Amis is a stolid, middle-class New Briton blessed with considerable chops, torn between worldly cynicism and a certain nostalgie de la boue, whose wish to get down and dirty is undertaken professionally but stops a bit short of conviction. They are both smart enough to notice you noticing this, and their answers are identical: more sixteenth notes! In Amis' case, what this entails is cascades and arabesques of language.

Night Train is a monologue, delivered by one Detective Mike Hoolihan, a physically intimidating, seen-it-all, tough-but-tender veteran of every rotten assignment in the police precincts of Anytown, USA. Hoolihan is also a woman, as she reminds the reader no more than once per paragraph. Police salaries being what they are, she lives in a comically tilted slum flat down by the railroad tracks, where deep in the night the titular conveyance roars by and sets the coffee cups a-rattling. She shares the dump with her latest in a series of hulking morons, or so she alleges. She only alludes to Tobe, failing to introduce him to the reader, who is tempted to conclude that Tobe belongs to the race of 6-foot-tall rabbits.

On this day, Mike has got her worst job yet. She has to notify next of kin in a suicide, and not just any suicide. The corpus delicti was once Jennifer Rockwell, who was both bodacious gorgeousness personified and the essence of braininess, an astrophysicist, in her day job. Mike has known Jennifer since the latter was a tyke. Jennifer was a sprout of the local cop dynasty, the only one not to wear the blue herself. All her brothers are cops, and her dad is such an overwhelming cop of a cop they made him a colonel. "Colonel Tom," as he is called throughout, has taken Mike under his capacious wing and seen her through detox and depression and all the rest of it, as if she were another daughter of his.

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S o Mike's heart is heavy, but she is still a police, as she likes to put it. She takes a quick look at the situation and her analytical mind snaps to. In addition to beauty and brains, the deceased had charm, wealth, and a fulfilling love-machine relationship with a fellow double dome, Professor Trader Faulkner, a roguish but loyal wearer of tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows. Does that sound like a recipe for self-offing? Not to our Mike, who starts investigating pronto, although the field of potential murderers is as thin as the motive directory. At length her researches lead her into terrain that is nearly spiritual or something. Could Jennifer--who apparently managed to put three bullets into her lovely brain--have killed herself because of the absurdity of the simultaneously expanding and contracting universe?

Don't count on finding out. Amis' game is sixteenth notes or, in this case, a run through the candy store of American slang. Like the blues as played by suburban virtuosos, the story itself is little more than a structural excuse for a show of wizard dexterousness. Mike is the only character. Background noise is supplied by other members of her department, but they are cut and pasted from a vague memory of Barney Miller. After Faulkner's cameo, he presumably returned to the Folgers Crystals commercial from which he was borrowed. Most others, like Tobe and Col. Tom, are flickering wraiths. The MacGuffin, Jennifer Rockwell, might occupy center stage as a corpse, but the reader doesn't believe in her previous existence for a minute. She joins the parade of other scarily perfect, not remotely credible woman-objects in Amis' fiction, such as Nicola Six, who plots her own murder in London Fields.

Is Night Train intended to be the record of Mike Hoolihan's dt-induced hallucinations? You tell me. What is certain is that it represents Amis' tabulation of his own verbal pink elephants. He would experience them in this form anyway, since here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, he appears curiously absent of any visual sense. He wallows in Americaness, especially cop talk. He likes the idea of hollow cant being delivered in clipped cadences by a broad, especially one under emotional strain. Sometimes you don't know whether he did his research by letting himself be washed by television for endless stretches, or whether he went so deep he knows expressions you've never heard (or haven't heard since fifth grade: Do cops ever refer to a perp as a "hoody"?).

He savors verbal dandruff ("state-of-the-art," "parameters") and jargon (the verbs "to badge" and "to be rigored"), but mostly he likes the rhythm, the tattoo, of fucks and shits and excuse mes. This doesn't prevent him from dishing out the fine writing, though; he has Mike get pretty fancy, to the point of spouting Latin. Anyway, the language business is the only conceivable motive for this book. Perhaps foreigners will thrill to the exotica, as a sort of high-lit gloss on Jerry Springer territory. Otherwise, it goes nowhere, for no reason, has no friction and no ending. A pint of the "fortified wine" that shares the book's name would make a better investment.

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