Wake Up, Sir!
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
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