Picks and Pans Review: Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions

updated 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Martin Amis

Like his de facto father Kingsley, like his more spiritual fathers Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, Martin Amis is an unsparing wit with a well-concealed but unmistakably soft heart. This first-rate collection of 33 essays, travelogues and interviews has the peculiar effect of revealing him in a warmer, more humane light than his novels do. The subjects range from Véra Nabokov (Vladimir's late widow) to Salman Rushdie (an old friend of the author's who grants him a poignant interview) and the looking-glass maze of corridors at the Pentagon, where Amis stalks the wizards of nuclear science.

The brainy, sarcastic, tender intelligence at the center of these pieces can make you laugh out loud; they can also move you to tears. But first and last, Amis has a gift for coming up with startling phrases. Of an ugly building boom in the Caribbean, he writes, "Capitalism looks on and cracks its knuckles." Ronald Reagan at the close of his presidential career is described as "a gorgeous old opera-phantom shot full of Novocain."

Véra Nabokov, V.S. Pritchett, Isaac Asimov, Madonna and Roman Polanski are among those who come alive under Amis's ironic, empathetic scrutiny. One common—but unstated—thread of unity is that most of the major figures in this book are prodigies, often youthful ones—much like Amis himself. His literary boyhood, his adult life as both a son and a father, his helpless and deeply personal sense of outrage at the buildup of the world's weaponry all haunt the peripheries of these visitations, as if this were not a bundle of essays but a stealth autobiography. (Harmony, $20)

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