The death of Martin Amis, last week from esophageal cancer—the same disease that felled his longtime friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens—did not come as a surprise. Reports of his decline came in regular dispatches from friends in London. He had moved to the house that he and his wife, Isabel Fonseca, owned in Florida. There had been treatments, but there had been no remission. With his death, he leaves behind a swell of grieving family members, chums, and fans.

I knew Martin, mostly through Christopher, a mutual friend. Between them, they left a body of combined work that all but defined the last half-century, both of their native Britain and their adopted America. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I preferred Martin’s early comic novels to some of his later ones. But his nonfiction, like Christopher’s, was as sharp and as observant as any among his contemporaries. Some 13 years ago, I wrote this review of his novel The Pregnant Widow for The New York Times Book Review. Some of the elements might seem dated, but as a general portrait of the author as a no-longer-young man, struggling against the tide of age, it might still hold some steam. Here it goes:

For someone who grew up in a not particularly exciting city in Canada—yes, yes, that was a joke—the sexual revolution was something that happened to someone else, somewhere else, most probably in that enchanted, faraway Gomorrah called the United States. I had certainly read about the sexual revolution in magazines like Time, and I was nothing if not eager to take it beyond the theoretical. But the knock on the door never came, and when I left for the rough-and-tumble of New York in the 1970s, I was still waiting for the sexual rebellion to conscript me into its welcoming bosom.

We could chat on and on about the dating­ habits of my beloved homeland—where even post-marital sex was gently frowned on—but there is a book to review here. And it is written by Martin Amis, a British foot soldier on the pulsing, sweaty front lines of that era’s social-sexual upheaval. To Amis, London was a petri dish of sexual experimentation. In his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, he says that sex was everywhere, and that the turning point in the whole affair arrived when girls became sexual aggressors who could pursue their desires and enjoy “the tingle of license” just like their male counterparts. Yes, just like guys, minus the pleading.

To discuss a Martin Amis book, you must first discuss the orchestrated release of a Martin Amis book. In London, which rightly prides itself on the vibrancy of its literary cottage industry, Amis is the Steve Jobs of book promoters, and his product rollouts are as carefully managed as anything ­Apple dreams up. The Amis campaigns tend to follow a rough pattern. In the first wave are interviews in the broadsheets: The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Observer, and so forth. Amis is photographed or described doing laddish things like playing darts, shooting billiards, and drinking in the middle of the day. Names are dropped: Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Clive James, Philip Larkin, and Julian Barnes, with whom Amis had a very public falling-out some years ago.

A British foot soldier on the pulsing, sweaty front lines of that era’s social-sexual upheaval.

There will be the inevitable artistic contrast with his father, Kingsley Amis, an interviewer’s dream inasmuch as he was known to proclaim his son’s books unreadable. Feature writers will declare the Amises the most significant literary dynasty in living memory. Father and son both burst onto the scene early, shaking up the publishing firmament with bracingly comic, original novels that each heralded a new voice: Kingsley with Lucky Jim, Martin with The Rachel Papers. These journalists will then put Amis junior on the spot by reminding him that unlike his father, he has not won the Booker Prize or landed a knighthood.

Kingsley was protean in his output well into his 70s. He was also an accomplished womanizer, drinker, and conversationalist, and as he aged, he became increasingly and vigorously conservative. (I sat beside him years and years ago at a Private Eye lunch at the magazine’s regular spot, the Coach and Horses in Soho, not far from its Greek Street offices. He was funny and raffishly rude, and had the thinnest, whitest skin I’ve ever seen on a man—like a condom filled with skim milk.) Finally, there will be descriptions of Martin’s lovely home in Primrose Hill, on the same street where his father once lived; his lovely wife, Isabel Fonseca; his lovely kiddies running around the house; and his past conquests as well as his looks, his fame, and his fortune.

As a rule, Amis will make some outlandish statement, generally in jest, that will provide second-day headlines in all the papers. The noted biographer D. J. Taylor is not alone in noticing that Amis does this pretty much anytime he has a book coming out. In the Sunday Times interview for The Pregnant Widow, for example, Amis envisioned a looming “silver tsunami” rolling into Britain. “There’ll be a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops,” he said, before proposing public euthanasia stands: “There should be a booth on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal.” You can imagine how that went over.

Next come the reviews, which also follow a general pattern. First they rehash the ghastly notices of the previous book, then they express the great hope that this will be a return to the old Martin—the funny Martin, who gave us The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and Money. Then comes the aggrieved disappointment that this book, regardless of its merits, is not the one we were waiting for.

Martin Amis at his desk in London in 1987.

Even the compliments are backhanded. When the British publishing journal The Bookseller declared The Pregnant Widow a “return to form,” Amis blanched. “What’s this return?” he asked. “He never went away.” Writing, remember, is the only art in which the creator is publicly judged by people who do precisely the same thing, but as a rule less well. And bubbling beneath the surface of a lot of these interviews and book reviews is resentment.

The Pregnant Widow is set largely in 1970, at a castle above an Italian countryside village in Campania, where it just so happens D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, once stayed. (In this novel, even real estate has a literary provenance.) Like Charles Ryder recalling his time at Brideshead years later, Amis’s narrator looks back on the events in that castle from the perspective of the 21st century and reflects on all that happened in their wake.

Three students from the University of London have come to stay: the protagonist, Keith; his girlfriend, Lily; and a stunning 20-year-old blonde with all sorts of luxury options and the unlikely name Scheherazade. Keith is both a leg man and a breast man—a fellow who wants to have his Kate and Edith too, as the saying goes.

“There should be a booth on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal.”

Although Amis announced early on that The Pregnant Widow (subtitled “Inside History”) would be “blindingly autobiographical,” he tut-tuts when critics try to align the characters with their real-life inspirations. He says that he had been working on a fiercely autobiographical novel, but that two years ago in Uruguay (where he has a second home) he scrapped most of it. Still, as the book opens, his narrator states: “Everything that follows is true. Italy is true. The castle is true. The girls are all true, and the boys are all true.... Not even the names have been changed. Why bother? To protect the innocent? There were no innocent.” The coy hints really got the fizz up in London’s literary cocktail. It has been speculated that Lily was based on Gully Wells, an editor now living in New York, and Scheherazade on Mary Furness, a comely contemporary of Amis’s who later took up philosophy.

Like other evocative descriptions of comfortable worlds on the brink of epic change—The Shooting Party before the Great War, and Vile Bodies before the Crash of 1929—The Pregnant Widow depicts the first skirmishes of a revolution from which few will emerge unscathed. Even the title, borrowed from the Russian writer Alexander Herzen, refers to an old order about to be upstaged by a new one: “The departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow,” Herzen wrote, “a long night of chaos and desolation” in which the old is gone and the new has not yet been born.

It is good to have a Keith in Amis’s hands. This isn’t Keith Whitehead, the malignant dwarf of Dead Babies who briefly resurfaces in Success. And it’s not the Keith Talent of London Fields. But the simple fact that our boy’s name is Keith is a ­subtle heads-up that we’re in for a bit of fun here. This Keith is Keith Nearing, and he happens to share the same birth year as the author (1949) and the same height (“that much-disputed territory between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7”). Keith, like Amis, also has a sister who will become one of the fallen in the sexual revolution.

Under the lush summer light of those vast Italian skies, Keith shares a turret with Lily but longs for the sexual affections of Scheherazade. Keith is an aspiring poet who is working his way through the English 101 canon, and there are references to Austen, Eliot, Keats, Shakespeare, and the New English Bible. There are nods to Greek mythology, the Iraq war, and both World Wars. And Amis peppers his prose with etymological references—“Nostalgia, from Gk nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain.’ The return-home pain of 20 years old”—that may strike some readers as appealing and learned but will strike others as a posturing, postmodern affectation.

All sorts of extras make walk-ons, including a sporty 4-foot-10 accident-prone Italian count (Amis does like dwarfs!), a big-bottomed gold digger named Gloria Beautyman, and Scheherazade’s boyfriend, whom Amis describes as “limply stylish, like a doodle from a talented hand.”

In the book’s present day, Keith is on “the bullet train of his 50s” and feeling it. But real time has outpaced the novel, and Martin Amis—the Mick Jagger of British fiction—is now 60 years old and a grandfather. Age is beginning to become an issue. When a writer from The Sunday Times asked what he saw when he looked in the mirror, he told her, “Don’t ask.” In his memoir, Experience, Amis describes a scene near the end of Kingsley’s life when, in shades of The Shining, he found his father hunched over the typewriter pecking the word “seagulls” over and over. “Writers die twice,” Amis wrote in a review of Nabokov’s posthumous novel, The Original of Laura: “Once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.”

Yet Kingsley was 64 when he won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils. For that matter, Norman Mailer wrote Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost in his 60s, and Amis’s friend and mentor Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift when he was 60. Topping them completely, Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for The Road at the ripe old age of 73. And the miraculous Philip Roth, at 77, continues to write high-end books at an alarming rate. So Amis has some time left before he hangs up his laptop.

Martin Amis—the Mick Jagger of British fiction—was a grandfather.

However much he fingers the hem of age, it should be said that Amis has still got it—in the sense that he still has what got him here in the first place. Along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language, and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in The Pregnant Widow.

But this may not be the Roman candle of a novel some of his followers are looking for. Perhaps his next one will do the trick. In the way Steve Jobs announces the new, improved version of the iPad even as he releases the original, Amis has already revealed two of the characters for his next book. One will bear some resemblance to the para-celebrity and Hello! magazine regular known as Jordan, whom he once described as “two bags of silicone,” and one will be based on Michael Carroll, a “chav” who blew almost $15 million in lottery winnings on houses, cars, jewelry, drugs, and parties. It is to be called “The State of England.”

But if Amis’s next book will tell us what we’re like now, The Pregnant Widow tells us what we were like 40 years ago, back when sex was supposed to change everything. To Amis, what matters at the end of the day is “how it has gone with women.” And not the conquests so much as the ones who got away. Toward the end of the book, we discover that Keith’s life is something of a professional and personal disappointment, and that he pinpoints that summer in Italy as the time when the wheels started falling off. It is a touching passage, filled with sadness and regret as he reflects on family and friends, some of them victims of the great sexual revolution. Keith asks a once-frisky character named Rita if she ever had the 10 children she hoped to have. “I sort of forgot to,” she says, bursting into tears. “I just seemed to miss it.”

Yet there is more comedy than pathos in The Pregnant Widow, and that’s to Amis’s credit. In a way, the book is his welcome attempt to return to the old Martin. Like his supremely talented contemporary William Boyd, and like so many other clever, funny novelists, Amis appears to believe that his early success was a card trick, and to have devoted the next several decades laboring to be taken seriously.

The London Observer called this book a “romantic farce,” but don’t go expecting Michael Frayn or Peter De Vries. As in many real summer idylls, not a whole lot actually goes on. The book describes a European country-house vacation, after all: there is a lot of reading, there are visitors, and there are trips into town. And although there are also endless sexually charged afternoons by the pool, you’ll get more real action in a Republican romance novel. As much as The Pregnant Widow is Amis’s account of the sexual battlefield and its aftermath—as much as it contains explicit talk and yearnings and legs and breasts to ache over; as much as it describes dainty washables and other tantalizing elements of the opposite sex’s kit to fantasize about—there’s not a heck of a lot of actual sex in the book. It almost took me back to the Canada of my youth.

Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor at AIR MAIL