An obsession with a figure from the lit world does not necessarily mean that I like the object of interest. It just means I’ll consider following him on Twitter, but change my mind. Delve into his canon with a cocked eyebrow. Sometimes I develop such a fixation that even I don’t know if I hate the object of interest, or if I want to tie the object of interest to my bed for optimal hobbling.
Right now I’m interested in Jonathan Ames. I think I kind of hate him, I probably hate him. But I’ve added two of his books to my Wish List so who the hell knows what I really think. It’s such a fine line for me.
Exhibit A: The show “Bored to Death” slays me. A lot of that has to do with Zach Galifianakis, but ultimately it is the creation of Jonathan Ames. It is that kind of funny that is too funny to laugh at every time it deserves a laugh, so I just have to rest my face in an amused position and let it go at that. But deep down I’m squealing.
Exhibit B: An excerpt from The Alcoholic, as seen in Best American Comics 2010 is dynamite. I’d totally read that in its entirety.
Which brings us to The Extra Man, a decade-old novel that is equally as good as it is bad. Louis Ives is a sort of pseudo pretentious fuck who moves to New York City after a shame-filled misadventure with a coworker’s bra. He finds a roommate, Henry, a character of indiscernible age and a walking, talking, dancing fountain of one-liners and life philosophies. Henry is a teacher, but supplements the lifestyle he can’t afford by hanging out with rich old ladies who feed him fancy food and take him to awesome parties and let him crash in their guest rooms in Florida. He is similarly skilled at needling his way into free theater performances.
Louis immediately becomes enamored with Henry and his lifestyle: hobnobbing with the biggies, but doing his laundry in the shower as he bathes, in something akin to the art of grape squishing with the intent to make wine.
At the same time, Louis is going through a super sexual identity crisis. He has always wanted to dress in women’s clothing, look in the mirror and see something beautiful. He starts frequenting a tranny bar near Times Square where he occasionally hooks up with pretty ladies adept at the old tuck-eroo. Afterward, he is a mess of self-loathing, and AIDS paranoia. His curiosity eventually leads him to an extreme tranny makeover, which increases his ugly feelings toward himself. Henry continues to be this peripheral mysterious shouter of one-liners.
This is a case where the main character is an exhausting hot mess of confusion and loathsome personality ticks. How can we like you when you don’t like yourself? He’s technically a well-done character with a strong, albeit annoying and emotionally stunted voice. But spending time with him is brutal. The sideline character is a co-star who outshines everyone else. I guess keeping him in the background lends to his mystique. Is he gay or straight? What was his life like before all of this? What would he say if he knew Louis was catting around the sexual underworld?
As an almost psychology minor, I suspect that Jonathan Ames has known, and has been hugely influenced by an elderly man of a refined taste and snobdom that is not consistent with his home life. I suspect that Jonathan Ames began jotting down this man’s whack daddy musings in a sort of pre-Twitter Shit My Dad Says way. And then I think this old man character creeps into everything that Ames makes. (See also: Ted Danson character on “Bored to Death.”) Some of the best lines from the show are first tested in this novel and Wake Up, Sir.
I’m all for mining your life story for characters and scenes and misadventures. Once. You get one story loosely based on your own life, then you have to be done with it. Purge. Start anew. Otherwise you are just a person with an eye for story potential and and ear for clever dialogue, and the wherewithal to record these and have these pages cinched together with book glue. Unless you call it nonfiction. Then, according to my rule book, you can do this forever and ever as much as you want. Next up: I read Jonathan Ames’ nonfiction collections to get a better sense of my feelings toward him.