Friends strike out in dark comedy

Booker Prize-Winner

AMSTERDAM

By Ian McEwan

Doubleday

193 pp., $21

This is turning into the year of the postmortem book. Just a few weeks apart, both England and America bestowed their most prestigious awards on novels that open with funerals and swirl around the lingering effects of the deceased.

Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy," a bittersweet story set during a wake for an affable Irishman, won the (US) National Book Award. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Booker prize for fiction went to Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam," a biting, black comedy that begins at a crematorium.

Are we having fun yet?

Actually, McEwan's readers are. The boiling wit of "Amsterdam" won't be everyone's cup of tea, but those thirsty for satire will gulp down this little book.

The former lovers of Molly Lane are stunned by her sudden demise. Her death derails the sense of invulnerability that wealth and success have given them. In life, she fascinated a publisher of New Age books, a politician in line to become prime minister, the country's most famous composer, and the editor of a venerable newspaper. But her death inspires anxieties that eventually wreak havoc on these admirers.

For Clive Linley, intimations of mortality are exaggerated by his more immediate anxiety about finishing a ridiculously grandiose "symphony for the millennium" for the British Symphony Orchestra.

It's a terrible burden being so much deeper than everyone else, but Clive bears his superiority with great patience. He suffers to translate his profound thoughts into sublime tones for the masses. Retreating to the Lake District, he witnesses a woman being assaulted, but surely, he reasons, no one could judge him harshly for sticking with his masterpiece rather than offering assistance.

Meanwhile, another of Molly's lovers, Clive's best friend, Vernon, is determined to save the stodgy Judge newspaper from oblivion. Long "revered as a nonentity" among his colleagues, Vernon is desperate to grab readers' ever-shrinking attention. But he must fight against the dull instincts of the paper's grammarians, who, he senses, "would see the paper into the grave with its syntax pure."

Despite their own peculiar battles, both friends are united in their hatred of Julian Garmony, the pompous foreign secretary with even grander ambitions. When Vernon comes into possession of some compromising photos of this arch conservative, he hopes he's found a way to triumph personally and professionally.

Torn by these struggles of will and principle, Clive and Vernon move to quell their private insecurities by making a pact that will cement their friendship and give them some peace of mind. But when the forces of politics and creativity turn against them, they find themselves looking in different directions, and the plans they've made bring deadly results.

McEwan writes the sort of scathing retorts and witty repartee we wish we could think of in the heat of battle. On a broader scale, his portrayal of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and journalists is as damning as it is comic. After McEwan's piercing satire, it may be impossible for news organizations to make sanctimonious pronouncements about the public's need to know every sordid detail of a politician's sex life.

This is a dark morality tale in the spirit of Evelyn Waugh's best work. Doubleday had planned an American edition of "Amsterdam" in February but suddenly moved publication up to December after it won the Booker Prize. For material this ripe, I'm glad we didn't have to wait.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com

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