The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Knopf (May 11)
There was a time when Martin Amis was an erudite comic novelist of tremendous linguistic inventiveness who had some serious intentions. But, in recent years, he has strayed from his calling. Since the publication of his triumphant memoir Experience (2000), Amis has been a dilettante historian (Koba the Dread) and tarnished himself with ham-handed forays into the Clash of Civilizations genre (see his collection The Second Plane). Meanwhile, the old trade in comedy has gone to seed. His 2003 satire Yellow Dog was almost universally panned. On learning that the new novel has an Islamic subplot, one turns the opening pages gingerly, peering at them askance, afraid of what will follow. But the anxiety soon vanishes.
The Pregnant Widow is the story of a young man's sexual coming of age during history's sexual awakening. The year is 1970, the location an Italian castle. Into this promising setting steps Keith Nearing, an unprepossessing British student on his summer vacation. He is in Italy at the invitation of his loving girlfriend, Lily, who equals him in brains and exceeds him in good sense. And he, with human inevitability, succumbs to the permissive ambience and the drives of youth to slaver after Lily's friend Scheherazade, who has just bloomed into prodigious beauty.
What unfolds is a perfectly paced and brilliant farce. Given the set-up, it's hardly surprising that the comedy tends toward the broad. But there's a mixture of moral wisdom and pathos that raises the book far above its deceptively simple premise. Keith conducts a psychological transaction typical of men his age: naivety and the capacity for love are exchanged for sexual competence. This being a pact with the devil, the mortal is horribly cheated. Keith spends his remaining life, which is narrated in short flash-forward chapters and is the focus of the novel's conclusion, trying to recover the innocence he squandered when young. Approaching the end of the book, we see Keith 24 years after that eventful summer. "I'm kind now," he tells his wife. "My vices got me absolutely nowhere. So for years I've been working on my virtues." There's a winning moral clarity here not typical of Amis.
Another of the book's great achievements is the dialogue. The characters riff off each other with such fantastic dirty verve it's as if Judd Apatow had eaten James Joyce's stem cells. A quote or two can't do the language justice, though I do especially like the double entendre about the gay man who "goes straight" for a beautiful woman's "arse" (that's "goes straight for the sake of her arse," as his neglected boyfriend clarifies). There's also a running gag that is sure to become a great literary word game for the whole family. It involves substituting certain trigger words in quotations and composition titles—"heart," for example, becomes "cock" or "box" depending on the writer's gender—to produce such gems as "The Box Is a Lonely Hunter" and "My cock leaps up when I behold..."
So what of the Islamic theme? Well, thankfully, in this novel of sex, Amis makes only one real assertion about Islam: that among its adherents you will find people who are fearsomely libidinous and others who are impeccably gay. It seems the Muslim's sexuality is much like everyone else's. Depending on your philosophical position, Amis's deduction is either obvious or simplistic. But no sensible reader can find it offensive. Amis leaps this self-imposed hurdle and returns triumphantly to fiction of a negotiable scope and a subject in which he has always shone: male insecurity. In fact, The Pregnant Widow is the best novel of his career. With its pristine prose, its wit, its wisdom, this novel—which plays with influence and reference to become a marvelous echo chamber for English literature—arrives like an unannounced visit from a long-lost friend. It's a very happy event.