Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

The Double Life Is Twice As Good: Book Review

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I wrote this for Identity Theory in July 2009.


The cover photo of Jonathan Ames’ The Double Life Is Twice as Good poses the book as a pugilistic battle between Ames’ dual dueling selves: the “novelist” and the “journalist and essayist.” The writer of fiction and the non-fiction writer. Recalling Raging Bull, the photo’s a nostalgic black and white; gloved up, the two Ames—novelist v. essayist—are in a boxing ring, and the crowd for their match is blacked out, absent.

Both Ames are well-muscled, and one has just landed a massive punch. Some large post-punch spittle flies from his opponent’s mouth. Which of the two Ames landed the punch? Which one is receiving it? Is one Ames victorious? Is this a KO? And why are the Ames fighting at all? Isn’t—per the title—the “double life” a “good” thing? Remove the boxing gloves, Ames(s). Be at peace with your selves.

With this release, Jonathan Ames’ fictional and non-fictional halves become equally matched. Ames has written four novels: I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man (soon to be a film starring Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Paul Dano and Katie Holmes), Wake Up, Sir! and The Alcoholic (a graphic novel). Including The Double Life, Ames has written four collections of non-fiction/short fiction: I Love You More Than You Know, My Less Than Secret Life and What’s Not To Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer.

“I am no longer young,” writes Ames in this collection, “but I am still mildly perverted, though with less energy.” The new book is similar to the old in that it’s a series of adventures: large, small, sexual, otherwise. Because Ames, the solipsistic pervert raconteur, is at the center of all of his work, enjoying his writing depends on enjoying his persona. It’s one defined by poetic obsessions—with being Jewish, with women’s bodies, and with Ames’ attractiveness or lack thereof, among other things, including excretions and masturbation.

In one Double Life story, Ames compares himself to Lenny Kravitz: “We’re both forty-three, but he’s a multimillionaire and I have no money in the bank… He’s a sexual icon … and I’m bald and my front false tooth has turned brown from coffee.” Concludes Ames, “I may be ugly and poor, but at least I’ll be taller than Lenny Kravitz.” But of course, when the two meet—”a Rock Star and One More Annoying Journalist”—Kravitz is “taller than me!” Which prompts Ames to wonder if Kravitz is wearing lifts in his boots.

The stories in Double Life thrust this insecure persona into fictional or non-fictional scenarios. “Bored to Death,” an opening mini-novelette wherein Ames becomes a private detective, is the best of the bunch. The story was originally published in McSweeney’s,  and like much of Ames’ fiction, features a main-character variation of Ames the man—a poor writer, addicted to booze, Internet backgammon, and sex, drawing auctorial inspiration this time from Hammett, Goodis, Chandler, Thompson, “the usual suspects, as it were”—in a hard-boiled, detective-novel milieu.

Ames used the same technique in Wake Up, Sir!, his hilarious modern take on P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels, but with Ames—as Alan Blair, a novelist en route to and languishing at Yaddo and suffering from a severe nose fetish—in the Wooster role. All this alongside a superpowered, perhaps-imaginary Jeeves straight from the Wodehouse. Like Don Quixote, one of Ames’ favorite characters, he loves these stories so much he forces his way into them—and gets beaten up nearly as much as Quixote. Once in, Ames imitates and absorbs not only the settings and the characters of his fixations but the writing styles, too.

Thus, the writing in “Bored to Death” is punchy. “The trouble happened,” begins Ames, “because I was bored. At the time, I was twenty-eight days sober. I was spending my nights playing Internet backgammon. I should have been going to AA meetings, but I wasn’t.” To relieve his boredom, Ames (the fictional character) posts an ad on craigslist, pretending to be what he is not: “Private Detective for Hire … I’m not licensed, but maybe I’m someone who can help you. My fee is reasonable.” Six days later, by which time he’s forgotten he posted the ad, Ames receives his first client call in the middle of a backgammon game.

Though the call fulfills his private-detective fantasy, Ames hesitates to end his game: “If I resigned, which is the same thing as losing… my ranking would go down, and I hate for my ranking to go down. I’ve worked very hard to get it to the second-highest level.” But he ends the game. His new client is a college girl searching for her sister. “She started slow and then her speech came fast,” writes Ames, “real fast, the way young girls talk.” This prose is at once funnily parodic and perfectly sincere. “Everything will be okay,” he tells the girl. “I’ll find your sister.”

From there, Ames assumes the role, or at least the appearance, of a private dick: “I put on a tie, loosened it at the collar, and undid the top bottom to give myself a rumpled world-weary private-detective look, and I threw on my gray-tweed Brooks Brothers sport coat, since there was a slight chill in the air. Also, on all the covers of my Chandler novels, Philip Marlowe, the great private detective, is always wearing a sport coat.” Ames concludes, “I felt, overall, quite capable of finding this missing NYU coed, at least wardrobe-wise.”

Best not to ruin what happens next—this is a mystery—but Ames plays the part well, for awhile. He questions and bribes bartenders. He faces mobsters and beat-down men. He sees his first dead body, an ODed rocker, and feeds an abandoned dog. Up until the end, Ames could’ve convinced us the story was true, but dangerous circumstances force him to take action in a way no Amesian character ever has. Guns are involved, and it’s shocking and wonderful. This reader would love a novel or several about this character. Instead, the story’s being translated by Ames into a TV series on HBO, with Jason Schwartzman as the pretend P.I.

Unfortunately, “Bored to Death” is the collection’s height, and it comes first. Downhill from there, as they say. The rest of the book is divided into three sections: “Journalism,” “Personal Essays” and “Short Stories,” and no other piece matches the joy of “Bored to Death.”

The Journalism section finds Ames playing amateur anthropologist, sent by various publications to visit places or meet people and describe them in his usual edgy and self-absorbed fashion.

The highlight is “Middle-American Gothic,” where Ames attends Gothicfest 2005, “an all-day gathering of twenty Goth bands in Villa Park, Illinois, a distant suburb of Chicago.” There, a DJ plays “pounding, scary music” and Ames is surrounded by skinheads and people in “Halloweenish costumes” who make him fantasize about “being beaten to death as an intruder, getting kicked repeatedly while lying on the ground.” But Ames finds the gentleness beneath the darkness. One Goth has a “sweet, open face.” Another has a “cherubic face, but his eyes, which are circled with black eyeliner, are wounded-looking.” Goth culture, he decides, is a romanticism whose romantic visions happen to be apocalyptic.

Another highlight is “We’re Not All Some Cindy!” in which Ames takes a class on how to pleasure a woman, with balloons for breasts and a peach for the vagina as classroom tools. In Journalism’s other pieces, Ames interviews Marilyn Manson and attends the U.S. Open, where he’s drawn to Maria Sharapova’s sexy armpits. He spends a few days in New York’s meatpacking district and comes away calling it “The Church of Surface,” a manufactured theme park for those amidst Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage of being. He keynotes the Corduroy Appreciation Club.

The problem is, unlike the NY Press columns in Ames’ previous collections, these stories are contrived situations, prescribed by magazines and not wanderlust. They aren’t raw slices of Ames’ life and lack the vigor of his earlier writing. Where’s the Ames who showed up to an orgy with his friend Mangina? The Ames who shit his pants in the south of France? The Ames who smoked crack with a transsexual prostitute? He seems softened. The wit is less savage. The reading is pleasant but nothing demands rereading; nothing made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. Are the real adventures over? Can they only be referred to now? Reminisced on?

In the Marilyn Manson story, Ames snorts coke with Manson but neglects to mention how it went. Wha happa?

The rest of the book seems cobbled together, with excessive diary entries and personal journals. Much of “June 25, 1983–August 1, 1983,” a sample of Ames’ teenaged diaries as he traveled Europe while yearning for his girlfriend Marie, is moving. But reading “June” is like reading the Xanga or LiveJournal Ames might’ve kept if he’d matured in a later decade. Meanwhile, “The Herring Wonder,” a piece about Ames’ fight with The Fighter author Craig Davidson that should have been a classic, is oddly structured, so that the meat of the story—the fight itself—is relegated to a second epilogue. Thus, the boxing story seems a blog entry Ames later edited.

The writing here is not without merit, but it does not reach Ames’ previous standards. There are some excellent sex stories—one about a woman who vaginally ejaculates onto Ames’ face; another about him deflowering a college girl who leaves him covered with blood—but these are underdeveloped. Too short. As though Ames rushed to finish them.

The “Short Stories” section of the book is saved by two greats. “Old Man, Young Girl” has a gut-punch last line—Ames the boxer-writer again emerges, speaking of his inability to love—and “I Was In Flowers” is a story about Ames’ visit to a male prostitute. The latter is less about sex and more about how a cruel teacher ended the prostitute’s dreams of being a painter. “I have a feeling that he is dead,” the ever-compassionate Ames writes a few years post meeting. “Probably from drinking. But he was a nice guy. I wish that his teacher hadn’t crushed him.”

Having arrived at Double Life‘s end, we can answer the question its black-and-white photograph book cover poses. Which Ames delivers the KO? The writer of fiction.

Written by patiomensch

July 25, 2009 at 12:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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