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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"The Second Plane" a tiresome tirade about Islamism

"The Second Plane" — a mixed bag of cranky, rage-filled fiction, essays and reviews — has already created a ministorm of contempt and controversy. Not surprising, considering it's about Islamism.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Second Plane: Terror and Boredom"

by Martin Amis

Knopf, 204 pp., $24

British writer Martin Amis has never avoided thorny subjects. In fiction and essays, he's addressed such hot-button issues as AIDS, nuclear winter, sexual bullying, class conflicts, political repression, the Holocaust, mental illness, drug abuse and moral dissolution. Not to mention bad teeth, literary envy and male-pattern baldness.

In recent years, Amis' work has been wildly variable, skidding from brilliant to baffling and sour and back again. He's rarely lost his gift for pithy prose, though. Here's an excerpt from his new book, chronicling a visit by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the White House as Amis tags along:

" 'Sit Room' is not an American contraction along the lines of fry pan, sleep pill, or shave cream. Far from being the sitting room, the Sit Room is the Situation Room ... The whole place fizzes with zero tolerance, with the prideful tension and frigidity of high protocol. Its peculiarly American flavor is evident in the sustained choreography and the dread of the spontaneous. This does remind you of something: a film set."

Nor has he lost his taste for provoking. "The Second Plane" — a mixed bag of cranky, rage-filled fiction, essays and reviews — has already created a ministorm of contempt and controversy. Not surprising, considering it's about Islamism — a subject for which Amis has little love (though he differentiates it from its gentler parent, Islam).

Amis is no fool, and this book is not, as that champion disser Michiko Kakutani recently opined in The New York Times, "chuckleheaded." Nonetheless, much of "The Second Plane" is dubious; some is dangerous nonsense; and some is clever but immaterial (Amis rattles on, for instance, about how Yanks and Europeans abbreviate dates differently: 9/11 versus 11/9).

He even includes, daringly, a few jokes: "I found myself frivolously wondering whether Osama was just the product ... of his birth order. Seventeenth out of fifty-seven is a notoriously difficult slot to fill."

"The Second Plane's" pieces are arranged chronologically, the first dated a week after Sept. 11, and have not been rewritten. The book thus forms an ongoing rant: one quick-witted, opinionated man's reactions, without the luxury of corrective hindsight, to the unfolding of crucial events — perhaps the crucial events — of our times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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