Martin Amis went through a bad patch during the mid-'90s, much of it eagerly, indeed cheerfully, recounted in the British press. He left his wife of almost 10 years and his two sons to take up with an American woman. Dissatisfied with the negotiations for the rights to his eighth novel, The Information, he dumped his agent, Pat Kavanagh, thereby infuriating her husband, the author Julian Barnes, who was until that moment one of Amis' closest friends. Amis underwent a long bout of dental reconstruction, prompting reporters to observe, in print, that he was not only a failed husband and father and money-mad but vain as well. And then the other famous Amis, his father Kingsley, died in 1995, the sole misfortune during this period that was not blamed, at least not publicly, on Martin.
Vengeance is sweet, but Experience (Hyperion; 406 pages; $23.95), Amis' riveting memoir of his troubled past, wastes little space settling old scores. "Why should I tell the story of my life?" he asks rhetorically at the outset, and answers immediately, "I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case--a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of father and son."
The mood of Experience is thus valedictory rather than recriminatory. The book hums with the same antic prose and looping comic riffs that characterize Amis' fiction. He recounts his dental misadventures, for example, with masochistic self- mockery. But about the sufferings of others he manifests a tenderness that may surprise his faithful readers. The portrait of his father, in his happy prime and then in sad decline, is fascinating and moving. "When he made you laugh," Amis writes, "he sometimes made you laugh--not continuously, but punctually--for the rest of your life." How fortunate that this son is, like his father, a splendid writer.