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Martin Amis' comic 'Widow' is trenchant, yet bawdy

| Sunday, March 14, 2010

The sexual revolution was far from bloodless. So insists Martin Amis in "The Pregnant Widow," a comedy of bedroom manners as trenchant as it is bawdy.

The novel pivots on the summer of 1970. Keith Nearing, a 20-year-old college student prone to falling head over heels in love, is vacationing in an Italian castle. Though the sky is blue and the sun hot, he cannot relax.

Fellow guests include his staid girlfriend, Lily, and her pal Scheherazade, who has recently blossomed from a frumpy do-gooder into a blonde stunner. Each day beside the pool, Keith is tormented by the spectacle of Scheherazade's bare breasts.

The castle belongs to her uncle, whose own girlfriend, gold digger Gloria Beautyman, joins the party. Gloria is in disgrace after a tipsy indiscretion with a polo player, and it's her thong-clad posterior that really gets to Keith.

"Where were they, the police?" he asks himself, made dizzy by the display of tanning female flesh.

As the sultry weeks blur together, Keith resolves to ditch his romanticism and take advantage of rumors that a revolution has divorced sex from marriage, procreation and even those messy things called feelings. Meanwhile, he's reading his way through a crash course on English novels. The plots of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence put the Swinging Sixties in context.

Additional guests come and go. These secondary characters are as boldly comic as any Amis has ever sketched, yet they are drawn with more sympathy. He shows pity even for Adriano, the accident-prone Italian count who walks with a lothario's swagger though he stands just 4 feet, 10 inches tall.

The book borrows its title from Russian writer Alexander Herzen, who said the collapse of a social order leaves behind "not an heir but a pregnant widow." Like the best comedy, it's a tale tinged with tragedy. Poolside chat is of girls who act like boys -- girls who are promiscuous. No one embraces this new creed more devoutly than Keith's little sister, Violet, whose lurid sexploits are related via worried letters from England.

The narrator eventually turns out to be not Keith but Keith's conscience, looking back on the sexual revolution three decades and three marriages later.

"Some came through, some more or less came through, and some went under," he says. Keith falls into the middle category, despite a steamy encounter at the castle that summer. The ones who went under were mostly girls, for whom the right to behave like boys became a hollow victory.

Of the novel's many strands, the saddest story is Violet's. It reflects the life of Amis's own sister, Sally, who died in 2000 at age 46. The author has blamed the sexual revolution, saying it granted Sally more liberation than she could cope with.

"She simply used herself up," he has said.

There are further autobiographical hints: Amis, like Keith, was born in 1949, and both occupy "that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven."

For all its slick satire and neon images, this book has a sage humanity missing in Amis's previous work. Once the Mick Jagger of the London literary scene, Amis proves a fine chronicler of the indignities of aging. In the bathroom, Keith repositions the mirrored cabinet doors to avoid glimpsing his expanding bald spot. To cope with the demands of life as an elderly person, he concludes, you need to be young.

"The Pregnant Widow" is a shade too long, and an Islamic theme shoehorned in toward the end feels underdeveloped. Still, by anatomizing the moment when old mores gave way to new, Amis explains plenty about contemporary culture. The result is an agile novel of ideas concealed in a story as entertaining as the kind you'd pack for a vacation in an Italian castle.

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