I’ve been feeling down about literary fiction lately, so I’m glad I checked out an unassuming novel called Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames, a Brooklyn writer who grew up in Buffalo, New York. With a frothy winter beer on its cover and a title that recalls Vincent Gallo, the novel appears on first glance to be about the quirky people of a small cold American city. In fact Buffalo Lockjaw has a different purpose, though its Buffalo charm is a hit as well.
We glimpse the purpose on page 4, when the book’s slacker hero reveals that a copy of Assisted Suicide for Dummies is in the back seat of his car. He’s returned to Buffalo (from Brooklyn) to spend time with his family and with his mother, whose mind has been completely destroyed by early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
During the next few days, the despondent narrator will sit in the hospital with his mother, hang out with his taciturn father and lesbian sister, hook up with a bunch of old friends, and struggle, over and over, with the question of how this tragedy could have struck his mother, and what he can do to help her. She was a nurse before the “dementia” struck, and left clear messages that she would choose euthanasia. But the narrator’s comically furtive attempts to carry out this illegal act go about as well as Hamlet’s attempts to kill his uncle.
Along with the main story, there’s plenty of Buffalo flavor and blue cheese dip here, especially in a series of inserts from an unfinished “oral history” of Buffalo culture, each containing surprising truths (that New York City mental institutions once dumped patients in Buffalo; that the cold city has a long tradition of public nudity and exhibitionism). Between the vignettes and the main story, the most remarkable thing about Buffalo Lockjaw is its unassailable niceness. We are somehow drawn to like and care about every character we meet. There are no bad people in this story, not even a couple of foolish hooligans who menace the hero over a girl whose name he can’t even remember.
As a writer, Greg Ames has the gift of utter likability. It’s good that he chose to write a first novel with a serious purpose, because he probably could have gotten by on upstate charm alone.