Jonathan Ames has a reputation to uphold.
As a columnist for the New York Press, he wrote personal narratives covering topics most of us would rather shove deep in our subconscious, and did so with all the reticence of a newsie. His most embarrassing—and often sexually revealing—moments were treated as headline copy for his cheeky, unblushing bulletin.
As a novelist, Ames has won praise from all corners of the literary world, from hard-line traditionalists like Joyce Carol Oates (who taught him at Princeton) to quirky lit heroes such as National Public Radio humorist Sarah Vowell.
And this is the space that Ames occupies: He is a writer whose style and chops are entirely in the tradition of the contemporary “great” authors. His wit and observational skill made Paul Roth praise Ames’s first book as akin to Catcher in the Rye. Yet, he often trains his skillful eye on the true—and therefore troublesome and humiliating—nature of sex and deviancy. His tales have sated a whole new generation of readers looking for a writer who shares their neuroses, post-Woody Allen.
Ames has made himself both the cool nephew of the Ivory Tower scribes, and the rambunctious uncle of the Copy Shop scribblers.
Thus positioned, it should come as no surprise that his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! is written in the British comic novel tradition, but deals with a neurotic, alcoholic writer trailed by an imaginary manservant. The writer, Alan Blair, flees the New Jersey home of his aunt and uncle first for Sharon Springs, NY, where he thinks the hot sulfur springs of upstate New York will quell the storm in his brain. He wants to retreat to the Hasidic enclave, rather than another rehab center. Blair brings Jeeves, his imaginary valet who shares the name of P.G. Wodehouse’s famed butler, along for the ride. To the slightly askew writer, however, Jeeves is very real.
Finding no solace in Sharon Springs, and finding himself on the receiving end of a few nasty blows from a “human hill,” Blair is drawn by invitation to Saratoga Springs, the home of the “Rose Colony,” an old-fashioned artists’ refuge. Here, the story takes off as Blair is introduced to a cast of characters so bizarre and maladjusted that he thinks he may have been interred in a sanitarium, rather than an artists’ sanctuary. He then, by the nature of his enormous character flaws, goes about systematically destroying the thin boundaries of the colony.
At a stop in Chicago during his recent book tour, Ames said that when he was younger and found himself in dire circumstances—often carousing with a “criminal element”—he would plead internally, “Home, Jeeves! Home!” The hope was to call upon a responsible servant, perhaps Ames’s superego, who would then take control of the wayward master’s body and guide him safely away from the ruffians, and perhaps school him in civil behavior on the way home.
That is the genesis, and the gimmick, of the book. But Ames uses Blair’s idiot pulpit to advance theories about homosexuality, Judaism and Hasidism, and the genesis of the artistic drive. He has plenty to say about all of it, and there’s also no shortage of sex and sexual deviancy.
What stands out most, above all of this, is Ames’s wit. Blair is an endearingly unsuccessful human being—and writer—out to craft the Great New Jersey Novel, thinking the Great American Novel beyond his reach. Ames pillories the selfishness of artists without condescension, which has the interesting effect of forcing the reader to enjoy these people, even if they are one-dimensional psychotics. Instead of belittling artists, Ames seems to think we should have as much sympathy for them as we would for the mentally ill.
There is a wonderful scene about two-thirds through the book when Blair takes off with his two closest inmate friends: the novelists Alan Tinkle and Robert Mangrove. Tinkle is driven nearly insane by his, to put it nicely, easily stimulated libido. Mangrove is a depressive who wears an eye patch over a perfectly useful eye; it’s radical therapy to open his “third eye.” After drinking down Wild Turkey and smoking Mangrove’s medical marijuana, the three launch into Saratoga Springs in Blair’s car, role-playing a science-fiction adventure wherein they adopt high-ranking positions in a “Space Navy.” They seek out a fountain behind the public library, and drink from what they have convinced themselves is water replete with serotonin. Drinking of its waters, they imagine their brains chemically altered into states of happiness.
It’s a beautiful scene of men behaving like boys, forgetting for the moment that their civilian lives—when they are out of their Space Navy uniforms—are a social shambles. Their friendship here is the innocent kind of childhood, and it clearly makes the men happy.
It is quintessential Ames: uproarious, ludicrous and something of a stretch. But it also seems to sum up the body of his work. The three men have serious troubles, troubles that both embarrass them to such a level that they must confess them. They are both ashamed and shameless. There are no simple answers, no ready-made quick fix for the deepest of neuroses. To work through them, however, seems to require a bit of good humor.
That’s how Ames has burrowed his unique cubbyhole: He takes on the Great Topics novels are supposed to tackle, but does it with a Space Navy. He employs a sort of laugh-through-it-all approach; not at all a method of therapy or a hope for a cure. Ames, it seems, thinks these problems are innate in all people, and that it’s foolhardy to convince ourselves we are unique in our disorders. We’re all miserable wretches on some level, and we could all use a hand from a Jeeves now and again.
And if that’s the case, why not laugh about it?
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