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Book: Yellow Dog, Martin Amis
There was a touch of poetry in the critical kicking that was given to Martin Amis’s tenth novel, the scabrous Yellow Dog (2003): as the blows landed, in review after hyperbolically terrible review, the book itself took on a snarling, cornered, cur-like vitality, a rare stink of nothing-left-to-lose. “Yellow Dog isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing,” wrote fellow Brit novelist Tibor Fischer, in an instantly notorious takedown. “It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. . . . It’s like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.” The Times’ Michiko Kakutani, meanwhile, recoiled so spectacularly from her review copy that she almost wrote a decent sentence: “Martin Amis’s new novel reads like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation.” Is that supposed to be a bad thing?

In Yellow Dog, Amis uses every trick, prop, fake mustache, and exploding cigar in his writer’s bag, and mobilizes every one of his obsessions, in a self-satirizing, dignity-defying attempt at a grand social novel. The scope is Dickensian, from Buckingham Palace to the villains of London’s East End — the mini-novels about the wistful and invertebrate Henry IX (“How could it be arranged that such creatures play a part in God’s plen?”) and the recidivist psycho Joseph Andrews (“There ain’t a form of punishment meted out in His Majesty’s Prisons that I’ve not took.”) are pitch-perfect. And even if they weren’t — even if the whole book were a boiling farrago of tastelessness and authorial vainglory — Yellow Dog would be guaranteed immortality by the following observation, from page 8: “After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship — marked by occasional, and rather regrettable lapses into incest.” No masturbating uncle ever wrote better.

— James Parker

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Despot: Saddam Hussein
For ages he was our guy in the Middle East. The CIA helped him and his thugs topple a less cooperative regime in 1963, and the investment paid off big time when Saddam assumed full power in 1979, the same year the ayatollah overthrew the shah. Bolstered by billions in US aid, Donald Rumsfeld’s bosom buddy plunged Iraq into a war with Iran, which claimed about a million Iranian lives. Way to go, Saddam!

True, there was a downside, like the massacre of an estimated 180,000 Kurds, topped off by the gassing of 5000 civilians in Halabja in 1988. Who did he think he was, Pinochet? But we couldn’t complain much, since we supplied him with some of the means to carry out this genocide. He wouldn’t cross the line until he threatened the resource that was the main reason we allowed him to exist in the first place: oil.

After invading our petroleum conduit, Kuwait, Saddam was no longer an asset — except, of course, as a scapegoat for exploiting the fears of American voters.

In that regard, he’ll be missed. And who knew his brutish strong-arm tactics actually kept the terrorists out of Iraq and restrained the country from a sectarian war that’s since killed hundreds of thousands? In the end, though, hanging was too good for the bastard. A better punishment would have been to give the country back to him and make him deal with the mess we made of it.

— Peter Keough

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