SCRIBNER, 352 PAGES, $23
IT’S HARD TO think of anything but hyperbole for the writing of
Jonathan Ames. His novel The Extra Man was tops, one of those books that my friend passed
to me and I passed to a friend in L.A., who also became a fan. Needless to say, I will never see it again.
The word in publishing was that his essay collection, My Less Than Secret Life, was not as
strong and was only put out to capitalize on the success of The Extra Man. It consists of essays
written for New York Press, where Ames had a column for several years.
His newest novel, Wake Up, Sir!, is loosely based on P.G. Wodehouse’s
Bertie Wooster series. In these books, Bertie Wooster is a marginal member of Britain’s aristocracy
who sponges off his relatives. He’s not very bright, and his butler, or gentleman’s gentleman,
Jeeves, is constantly getting him out of trouble or triumphing over Bertie and his pals. My favorite
part of these books is the argot of the 20s and 30s, which the characters employ to excess: "Would
I? Would I ever! Why don’t you just wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me? Why don’t you just
stop me in the middle of the street and ask me?"
This means "yes."
A prescient Wodehouse was also satirizing health-food fanatics 75
years ago: In one story, the son of a health food guru is lured into a pie-eating contest.
The Jeeves of Wake Up, Sir! is a possibly imaginary and thoroughly
delightful manservant, much in the mold of his progenitor. His master, the main character, Alan
Blair, is a blocked writer, as well as a directionless and unbalanced alcoholic who lives with his
gun-toting uncle and worried aunt in Montclair, NJ. This is a good device, as everyone likes to make
fun of blocked writers. Blair, unlike Bertie Wooster, is not naturally stupid, and the book is peppered
with his keen, often funny and always idiosyncratic observations. His neuroses and addiction,
however, often lead him to behavior that verges on the imbecilic. He blacks out and gets into pointless
scrapes, alternately fretting about minor matters, then jumping blithely into inane situations.
He gets badly stomped by the boyfriend of a woman whose number was scribbled in a local phonebook.
Blair actually called her for a date, full of high hopes.
Ames uses the classic method of the unreliable narrator, and coyly refers
to this as he describes his protagonist working on The Walker, which sounds awfully similar
to The Extra Man: "I’m making myself out to be a loony, unreliable narrator…allows you
to get away with things, like not fact-checking."
Although the humor is broad, it’s never shallow, and Blair can be poignant
as well as amusing:
"I should tell people I love them, but I don’t do it nearly enough…
I had a friend who was dying from a brain tumor—on the phone one day he said ‘I love you’ in lieu
of goodbye. It wasn’t going to be our last phone call, and I wasn’t his closest friend by any means,
but I could hear in his voice that he was going to say this now to everyone; there was no need anymore
to hold back. I thought I should adopt the same policy."
Similarly, he explores the Jewish question and the homosexual question
with gusto at every opportunity, which is relevant in this day of nouveau anti-Semitism. Although
the character gets in adventures, they’re a bit more free-flowing than the old-time Wodehouse
novels, where each chapter has the bumbling Wooster getting in over his head, only to be rescued
by Jeeves once again.
Blair, on the run from his uncle, who will no longer accept his drunken
lethargic presence in his home, finds out he’s been accepted by the Rose Colony, a writing colony
perhaps based on Yaddo, which Ames thanks in the book. He almost sleeps with a nutty dame and is rescued
by his new little dysfunctional friend. The scorned woman goes on a rampage and Blair develops a
huge crush (obsession?) with Ava, a sculptress with a big nose, which he fantasizes licking.
Blair’s not a total loser, he’s got some game, and eventually has sex
with the flirty Ava. My gay friend didn’t think Ames got the sex right, but as a heterosexual lady
I felt he did. Blair’s not bad in bed at all, sensing the passivity of his partner, giving in to the
innate violence of the sexual conquest. Of course, Ava becomes alienated by him soon after, when
he gives her crabs he’s picked up in a cheap hotel. The main character in Tama Janowitz’s latest novel,
Peyton Amberg, gets a bad case of head lice. Do I spot a literary trend in the making? What have they
come to represent, these tiny vermin?
One unfortunate result of all this reading aloud that’s become a semi-popular
trend is that a writer’s persona and work become indistinguishable from the author in the eyes of
an untutored public. Janowitz had to actually state that she herself has never had head lice, right
up front. Ames, who has boxed as the Herring Wonder and starred in an Eric Bogosian play, plays around
with an intermingling of persona and self and would probably have been in danger of this misapprehension
if not for his new book. After all, an ambiguously extant manservant, an absurd romp involving a
pair of stolen slippers and the like make it pretty clear that this is a work of fiction.
Back when we were all in writing workshops, the idea of voice was stressed.
Ames transcends this by adopting a sort of hyper-articulate pomposity to frame his own crazily
ponderous insights. The anglophilia of writing a modern Jeeves book might be an American-Jewish
phenomena, one of the quirks of the assimilationist temperament. My mother, a Russian Jew, frequently
pores over her Jane Austen and extensive Iris Murdoch collection. Philip Roth just isn’t up her
alley. Saul Bellow once said he didn’t like Isaac Bashevis Singer because he was too Jewy for him.
Where does this book fit into the modern scene, or as it is now fondly called,
postmodernism? Without nonstop action, Ames is free to use techniques I wish were still employed
in literary journalism, taking a subject and working it to death. Too funny for the canon of high
literature, the book is too brilliant to be mere diversionary humor. It’s damn clever. o