Jonathan Ames Essay

(Photo: Jake Chessum)

These details are provided freely by Ames, so you can be sure they are true, more or less. He’s written about them, used them in plays (such as his one-man show, Oedipussy), and built monologues around them to perform at the Moth, the downtown storytelling showcase where he’s been a frequent guest. Once, during an event at the now-defunct Fez, he told the story of how, after the first time he masturbated, he was so proud that he ran into his parents’ room to demonstrate for his mother. After he told this story, his mother followed him onstage to read a poem based on the event. His father sold books in the back.

Ames grew up in New Jersey, with the young writer’s usual idols. Hunter S. Thompson. Jack Kerouac. Ernest Hemingway. He dreamed of a literary life but also wanted an adventurous life. After a first novel, I Pass Like Night, published in 1989 (and blurbed by Philip Roth), he dropped the fictional veil and started exposing his adventures directly: his sexual anxieties, his problematic drinking, his narcissism, his fascination with transsexuals. He had many lean years, supporting himself through teaching and taxi driving, and he moved back in with his parents. Then came his follow-up novel, The Extra Man, and “City Slicker,” his column that ran from 1997 to 2000. These swashbuckling tales of ribaldry were both anxious and adventurous, as though Woody Allen had stolen Charles Bukowski’s date book. “They were kind of a mini-sensation,” recalls Thomas Beller, a writer and Ames’s longtime friend. “They were lewd but never sensational just to be provocative. And there was this outrageous level of candor. It was all like a high-wire act. Yet very grounded too.”

Before I sat down recently to read Ames’s collected columns, I knew him mostly by reputation as That Funny Brooklyn Guy Who Writes About Sex. Characteristically, Ames has written about being thought of this way, a self-advanced designation he now claims to regret: “Geniuses and Great American Novelists sell a hell of a lot more books than Perverts,” he writes. “I should sue myself for libel.” I assumed his essays would make for a pleasant afternoon of breezy titillation, reading like (to borrow one of his most durable blurbs) “an edgier David Sedaris.” What I found was that the columns were surprisingly sweet and surprisingly sad, and that the waves of comical oversharing came with a powerful, tugging undertow of earnest pain. In among the rollicking essays about pant-shitting, for example, you’ll also find one in which an ex-girlfriend aborts a baby that Ames believes is his; afterward, dopey on Valium, she tells him blankly that, as he writes, “the dead baby was too old to have been mine.” Beller describes Ames’s writing as “tender,” and I think that’s true, though perhaps less in the sense of an all-encompassing human empathy and more in the sense of the vulnerability of a flinch; tender to the touch.

“I write a lot of stuff so I can keep my secrets. It’s hiding by not hiding!”

Granted, it’s also shtick, of course: the public confession of private shames. (How shamed can you be if you’re declaring it to the world?) Good writing requires a large dose of fearlessness, but also a large dose of exhibitionism, and Ames has both. And if he’s not the world’s first rabidly confessional writer, his columns did anticipate the cultural compulsion to reveal a little (or a lot) too much. But the emotional punch of his earliest writing still lands with genuine impact. It’s as though he saw the whole culture of TMI coming and preemptively yawped from the top of Mount Overshare: Damn you all, I will not be out-confessed.

As a result, Ames seems, on the page at least, like the last lone man who truly does not give a shit. He’s armored by his nakedness. What can you reveal about him that he hasn’t already revealed? The cartoonist Dean Haspiel, Ames’s friend and collaborator (the character of Ray is loosely based on him), has found that he and Ames share a tactical belief in self-revelation as self-defense. “It’s like that last scene in 8 Mile,” says Haspiel, “when Eminem goes up onstage and decides, ‘I’m just going to show it all—all the bad with the good. That way, you can’t diss me. You can’t diss me better than I can diss me.’ ”

This is beautiful.

So this is what Brooklyn literary stardom looks like. A hundred adoring people—two hundred?—crammed in elbow-to-elbow, hunched protectively over plastic wine cups, smiling in the sunlit backroom of Book Court in Cobble Hill. There are long-limbed young women of the publishing breed: bespectacled, tastefully averse to makeup, bare-shouldered but not showing too much skin. Scoping them out: reed-thin males, intellectually disheveled, conversating seriously while scanning the room. And they’re all here to see Jonathan Ames. But which Ames?

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  • The double life of the writer—the doggedly functional outer persona surrounding the neurotic inner core—comes through in this sparkling if scattershot collection from New York's gonzo scribe. In his forays into lifestyle journalism, Ames (Wake Up, Sir) is perennially out of place whether among scary teens at a suburban gothic fest or vapid club hoppers in Manhattan's glitzy meatpacking district. He's ill at ease just being himself in memoiristic essays, from a European travelogue to an account of recent boxing stunts. His fictional alter egos are similarly out of their comfort zones; in the sly anti-noir Bored to Death, an Amesian writer poses as a PI and flounders when the lark becomes too real. As always, Ames's own bodily functions, baldness and angst take center stage—Am I darker than Marilyn Manson? he broods in a profile of the goth pied piper—along with his graphic sex scenes, which play out as detached procedurals in which he self-consciously monitors his partners for signs of orgasm This miscellany contains some weak items—college diary entries?—dredged out of a bottom drawer. But at his best, Ames still beguiles with his offbeat, defiantly hangdog sensibility. Photos. (July)
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