There’s a new name on my writers-I-like-a-lot list, though this name took a circular route to get here. I was introduced to the novelist Jonathan Ames a few years ago by my friend Christian Crumlish who’d apparently been his college buddy at Princeton. We’d dropped by a Jonathan Ames reading at a small Greenwich Village theater, but you couldn’t call the performance a reading so much as, well, an astonishing spontaneous thirty-minute filibuster of disgusting personal facts and scatological observations regarding Ames’s body and his highly varied sexual desires. It was all quite humorous, and the crowd seemed to like him a lot. But scatology is not my bag and I honestly didn’t know what to think about my friend’s friend.
But something compelled me to pick up his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! and I am now a believer in the worthiness of Jonathan Ames. In fact I’m still glowing from this artful book, which radiates a complex warmth beneath its comic surface.
The book is an explicit homage to a favorite writer of mine, P. G. Wodehouse, in that it features a hedonistic narrator with a calm valet named Jeeves. Ames’s hero Alan Blair is a modern slacker with a manic personality and a slippery grip on reality, and he speaks in the same bemused cadences as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster.
But there are also echoes of Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the utter self-deprecation that permeates this narrator’s every thought. Ames writes by letting his character spill out everything about himself, whether he wants us to know it or not. It’s a cathartic, ecstatic kind of self-revelation, and in this context I have a better understanding of the performance I saw in Greenwich Village a few years ago. This book is tamer and has a surprisingly polite tone, but the veneer breaks often, as in the ridiculously detailed long scene in which the narrator discovers he has an STD and goes into a frenzy of suicidal yearnings and obsessive self-shaving and cleansing that lasts 14 pages. Somehow, believe it or not, the 14 pages are fun to read. It’s all so remarkably childish as to be endearing; reading this book is like watching a child throw a hilarious fit.
Some reviewers of the book have hinted that Jeeves is imaginary, while other reviewers treat the character as fully real. I take a strong stand on this matter, because I believe the proper way to interpret this book is as a series of strong hints and clues — a Dan-Brown-like codex, even — which proves that, beyond any doubt, Jeeves is not real, and is in fact the central psychological metaphor of the book. Here’s why I’m sure.
First, nobody but the narrator ever interacts with Jeeves. When they go to a writing colony, we are told that Jeeves will dine with the kitchen staff, but no further mention is made of this and there is a chilling sense that Jeeves will not be dining anywhere. Likewise, when they are driving, Jeeves does not appear to ever take the wheel.
The second clue is the more subtle one, and is designed to be noticed only by hard-core Wodehouse fans like myself. There is a curious subplot involving some stolen slippers which the hero is accused of having absconded with, and when he then finds himself in a very uncomfortable situation at the end of the book, the stolen slippers return in such a way as to miraculously save the situation. This is a classic Wodehouse ending, and the hero even thinks to himself that Jeeves must have devised the solution. But that’s the twist — it turns out somebody else did it. This blunt reversal is the clearest signal that Jeeves can only reach the edge of reality in this novel, and is in fact, like Harvey the rabbit, like Donnie Darko, like the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon’s The Other, like Leland Palmer’s Bob, like Tony Soprano’s Kevin Finnerty, like Hamlet’s Ghost, an utter figment.
Despite this Matrix-like undercurrent of meta-meaning, the book’s plot generally glides sweetly upon the author’s felicitous prose. Two highlight scenes: the surreal moment when the narrator resumes his psychotic alcohol abuse at a party with several equally unbalanced writers, and the hilarious scene when he first arrives at a rural writer’s colony (based on the real Yaddo) and becomes convinced that he has been deceived into staying at a mental hospital, based on the grotesque facial appearance of several nearby poets.
Ames hints on his own website that Wake Up, Sir! may be made into a movie. If this happens, I hope Ames will play himself and Stephen Fry will play Jeeves (he got it right in a recent television production, although co-star Hugh Laurie was absolutely absymal — I’m talking Tom Hanks bad — as Bertie Wooster, and made the series unwatchable). Perhaps this film will be the great Wodehouse movie that has never been made (in fact, Arthur starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud was not too completely far from this mark; Wodehouse seems to inspire great homages).
I hope the Ames film happens. I think I’m going to pick up his new book of essays next. I’m not sure what to expect.