Martin Amis in Brooklyn
A few local tips for the tennis player and famous author.
On the 8th day of December, in the year 2010, a certain parcel of land, with the buildings or improvements thereon erected, situated in the Borough of Brooklyn, was granted and released to Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca. The British novelist and his wife bought a townhouse in an area called Cobble Hill, which, with its Greek Revival and Anglo-Italianate architecture, somewhat resembles the Greenwich Village through which the protagonist of Money lithely slithers: "Bank Street looked like a chunk of sentimental London, black railings and pale blossoms girding the bashful brownstones ...." Renovations are coming along nicely, which passes for cultural news for a few reasons. The most minor of these is that Amis is the greatest living English-language prose stylist, and the neighborhood is a New Yuppie stronghold. He represents our culture's best hope for coming up with some fresh jokes about $1,000 baby strollers and local organic cousa squash.
This kind of expatriation seems the most natural narrative destiny for this most American of British novelists. Typing that last phrase, I realized that I stole it from Joyce Carol Oates, who once used it when introducing an Amis reading at Princeton University. Then I realized that the man's biographers will trace his faith in this country back to 1959, when his father toiled for a year in those very academic flatlands. Amis sometimes performs a set piece about that Christmas morning, when he received presents including a robot, a knife, an axe, and a six-pack of cherry bombs and realized, "This is a wonderful country." The wonder has been a regular feature of Amis' fiction and journalism. He believes with Saul Bellow that our moronic inferno is where the real modern action is, and the narrator of London Fieldscuts to the heart of the matter:"Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability—to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny." This is a crazy place—"crazy like an X-ray laser"—and Amis characters tend to appreciate the vivacity of New York, its cultural capital, "all the contention, the democracy, all the italics, in the air."
And yet Amis is not terribly familiar with his new home. Asked about his new neighborhood by the New York Observer, the novelist confessed, "I've only been there a few times." These notes are by way of rolling out the welcome wagon. Everyone who is both a fan of Martin Amis' verbal acrobatics and likely to run into him among the peaches and penumbras of the produce market should leave a note in the comments section. This is called being neighborly; we treat our celebrities well in Cobble Hill, refraining even from pointing and laughing when the local Real Housewives buffoons pass wretchedly by. Try to be specific and targeted in your counsel; there are any number of places where Amis can learn about our many fine restaurants and Asian-fusion tourist traps, and the glacially slow service at Rite-Aid really isn't anything special. But if you've got a tip that relates directly to the concerns of his work—a recommendation for a dentist, say—then please do leave a note below. Here are some examples to get you started.
"Burglars were finding that almost everywhere had been burgled. Burglars were forever bumping into one another, stepping on the toes of other burglars. There were burglar jams on rooftops and stairways, on groaning fire-escapes. ... Returning from burgling, burglars would discover that they themselves had just been burgled, sometimes by the very burglar that they themselves had just burgled! How would this crisis in burgling be resolved? It would be resolved when enough burglars found burgling a waste of time, and stopped doing it. Then, for a while, burgling would become worth doing again." —London Fields
Sadly, from the point of inspiration, there is not a lot of crime in the area. Credit for this is due to the fine work of the 76th Precinct and the calming influence of the Mafia. The blotchy persons tossing darts in the bars are not professional thugs but media professionals—a fine but meaningful distinction—and the stray nocturnal crackheads whiffling down Smith Street are largely docile. That said, Amis should stay alert for iPhone muggers, playground arsonists, and bicycle thieves, always locking both the frame and the front wheel.
A majority of Amis novels involve hospital scenes. (From the reverse-chronological headache machine Time's Arrow: "The air of the hospital is lukewarm, and it hums, and tastes of human organs obscurely neutralized or mistakenly preserved.")
The Long Island College Hospital is a convenient place to the novelist to explore morbid curiosity about the American health care system. There is a 24-hour Au Bon Pain in the lobby and, more importantly, a Taco Bell Express.
"Anyone who shared the common belief that the decline of British tennis was a result of the game's bourgeois, garden-party associations would have felt generally braced and corrected, at the Warlock Sports Center, to hear the ragged snarls and howls, the piercing obscenities and barbaric phonemes which made the wired courts seem like cages housing slaves or articulate animals in permanent mutiny against their confinement, their lash-counts, their lousy food." —The Information
Amis will shortly turn 62, meaning that he will be, in the eyes of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, a senior citizen and thus eligible to buy a full-season tennis permit at a tremendous discount. Still, they almost never check for permits at the courts on Congress Street, so he should instead invest the $20 in proper togs. (Amis' opponent in the match that inspired his other great tennis scene, in Money, later remarked that the author showed up wearing black Argyle socks.)
"I've driven in New York," John Self says in Money. "Five blocks, and you're reduced to tears of barbaric nausea." To help avoid such emotional seizures when motoring south toward Atlantic Avenue, Amis should drive lightly traveled Furman Street whenever possible. This will also afford his passengers a chance to admire the view from under Norman Mailer's old house on Columbia Heights, which Amis once described, in 1981, "overlooking New York Harbor and the Dunhill lighters of Manhattan." (That was the year before he wrote, in a review, that "Norman Mailer's new book bears all of the signs—all of the watermarks, all the heraldry—of a writer faced with an alimony bill of $500,000 a year.")
The marvelous oddity in the Amis oeuvre is an out-of-print paperback titled Invasion of the Space Invaders. Published in 1982, subtitled "An Addict's Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines" and featuring an introduction by Steven Spielberg, it is a book bearing all of the signs of a writer attempting retrospectively to justify several hundred hours spent hovering above Tempest. The must-read excerpt available at the top Amis-scholarship site gives its flavor: "Every game has a distinctive fire-and-dodge action that you will gradually master. In Defender it is a fast two-finger action on Fire and Thrust, in Asteroids a spray action on Fire and Rotate. In Space Invaders it is a continuous co-ordination of Fire and retreat, Fire and retreat ...."
There is a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga classic cocktail table at Boat, and it accepts dollar bills. Don't bother asking the bartenders for change unless you just want to flirt.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Martin Amis by Ian Gavan/Getty Images.