The Coy Exhibitionist

Photo: Jake Chessum

Hey, are you Jonathan Ames?

Jonathan Ames, the novelist, sits perched on a director’s chair in a tiny black tent on a TV production set in Jackson Heights, Queens. He’s wearing cords, a tweed jacket, a newsboy cap, and a green tie embroidered with little blue hummingbirds, with a large pair of headphones horseshoed around his neck. Ames, who was briefly a male model 25 years ago, back in his Princeton days, is handsome and bald, with a long prominent nose that was broken by a childhood bully, then again in a Paris bar fight, then again while training for a boxing match, then again during the boxing match. His chin is fuzzed with red whiskers. He looks quite a bit, as one crew member remarks, “like that crazy painter, you know, the one who cut off his ear.” He’s watching a monitor. His legs bounce.

They stop bouncing.

“As I like to say, I have the crème fraîche of problems,” he says.

The problem: He is fretful. He is worried. He has been run ragged this summer, working on his new TV show on HBO. The crème fraîche: He has a new TV show on HBO. Ames and the crew are filming a scene for his comedy Bored to Death, which stars Jason Schwartzman, of Rushmore fame, as a novelist named Jonathan Ames. Ames, the character, like Ames, the writer, lives in brownstone Brooklyn. Ames (the character) just got dumped by his girlfriend, and so, in a spasm of ennui, he places an ad on Craigslist offering his services as an unlicensed private eye. Adventures follow. Bumbling adventures. Also, colonics, sperm donations, and herpes sores.

In Ames’s novels and essays on life in New York, most of which revolve around self-loathing, loneliness, sexual misadventure, and bodily dysfunction (P.S. they’re comedies), he’s cultivated a style that you might describe, oxymoronically, as uproariously melancholic. Bored to Death reconstitutes this tone for TV; the show is like The Long Goodbye meets The Squid and the Whale. In the tent, Ames says, “I was always drawn to the Philip Marlowe character in Raymond Chandler’s books. He’s so sure of himself! He’s so cool! He drinks black coffee in the morning!” Much of the humor in Bored to Death comes in the juxtaposition of that male archetype—the dapper, tough-talking, hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart type—with the modern-day Brooklyn males of the show, who are in no way cool, or sure, or hard-boiled. They are soft-boiled. Ames (the character); his best friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis); and his mentor, George (Ted Danson), a Graydon Carter–esque magazine editor, are, to varying degrees, infantilized, neurotic, confused, and emotionally inept. When Ray gets upbraided by his girlfriend on the street, he starts crying. When Jonathan is asked by an Israeli mover if he’s “another self-hating New York Jew,” he nods and answers softly, “Yes, I am.”

This makes them classic comedic figures of a type—Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam toyed with the same juxtaposition, substituting “overly therapized Upper West Side Jew” for “emotionally retarded Brooklyn white dude.” As a comedy, Bored to Death works as a bemused but affectionate love letter to a modern, neutered New York, specifically Brooklyn, that land of picturesque locavore restaurants, Bugaboo-stroller herds, and wolf-packs of arrested man-boys who pine for that one elusive woman who might appreciate their vintage-comic-book collection.

At its heart is Jonathan Ames (the character), a typical Amesian anti-hero. Ames (the writer) is known for being remarkably, even cringingly, candid, a virtuoso of humiliation, whether he’s describing teenage shame over a tiny penis, or his endless failed love affairs, or his terrifying bout with genital warts. His fictional alter egos are all sweet-natured sickos, lousy lovers, feckless philanderers. And in twenty years Ames has littered the literary landscape with these cockeyed variations on himself: the Jonathan Ames of his popular New York Press column, “City Slicker”; the “Jonathan A.” of his graphic novel The Alcoholic; the autobiographical hero of his novel The Extra Man, now being adapted into a film; and starting this month on HBO, Jonathan Ames, private dick.

“It’s like there’s all these versions of me in me,” Ames says in the tent, while watching yet another version of himself on the monitor. Later, on set, he steps in to whisper some direction to his latest alter ego, then steps back and hovers momentarily in the frame, observing yet another fantastical version of his life unfold.

His life unfolds, and he unfolds his life. Ames, like a flasher, has made a great career of exposing himself. But that doesn’t mean he wants to show you everything.

Look at all this perverted shit over here!

The first time I met Ames, I had not yet read about his genital wart, nor the time he smoked crack with a transsexual on Christmas Day, nor the time he spanked a German tourist outside the Holocaust memorial in Battery Park while she sucked on his thumb, nor the time he shit his pants in the south of France (as chronicled in the essay “I Shit My Pants in the South of France”). The difficulty of interviewing Ames, I soon learn, is that there are few things you can ask him that he hasn’t already answered, in print. His first time? “My first sexual experience with a woman was rather old-fashioned: It was with a prostitute” (“The Playboys of Northern New Jersey”). His sexual prowess as a callow youth? “What I would do back then is string together three or four premature ejaculations and hope that it added up to a satisfying session for the young lady” (“I Called Myself El Cid”). How does he feel about his literary career? “There are so many talented young writers named Jonathan, with whom by comparison I suffer terribly … It’s like we’re the Brothers Karamazov, and I see myself as the sickly, subnormal brother who is always wandering off into the black Russian forest and is found screwing sap holes in trees” (“Self-Sentenced: My Life As a Writer the Last Few Years”).

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?

Photo: Jake Chessum

There’s Jonathan the newly successful TV creator. There’s Jonathan the lewd columnist. There’s Jonathan the deft storyteller and sometime guest on Letterman. There’s Jonathan the novelist and Brooklyn boulevardier. All of these Jonathans have fans.

Ames, ever the showman, calls the crowd to attention. Then he apologizes. The knife-thrower is running late.

“I wanted Miss Saturn, she’s this hula-hoop person. But she wasn’t available,” he tells me later. “So then I wanted Ula the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl—I once broke a cinderblock on her belly while she lay on a bed of nails. But she wasn’t available either. So she suggested Throwdini.” More than anything, he loves to put on a show. Despite the harrying demands of a TV series, he describes the process as fun, like “putting on a big wedding.” On set, he looked around and said, “All these people! All these trucks! There’s a truck with a spigot on the side where coffee comes out! All because I wrote something. This is beautiful.”

One summer evening, a week after his reading, we meet on the backyard patio of a Brooklyn bar. I arrive assuming there are no untendered confessions left to wring out. I’m surprised to learn that he’s concerned about certain trivial details’ making their way into print. For example, he’s boyishly circumspect, in a gentlemanly way, about his entanglement with the singer Fiona Apple, who lives in L.A. As we talk generally about performers, he mentions, “I’m dating a performer,” as though, in this age of the Internet, there might be things about him that are still left to be known.

I decide to unfurl my loosely stitched theory about all of this Amesian exhibitionism, in print and in life. As usual, he’s beaten me to it. He has a theory already worked out. “I write a lot of stuff so I can keep my secrets,” he says. “It’s all about hiding the truth. It’s hiding by not hiding! Like I’m distracting them by saying ‘Hey, look at all this perverted shit over here!’ ” Ames’s whole act, it turns out, is not a striptease. It’s a shell game. All his different personae are the shells. Try to guess which one has the real Ames inside.

About ten years ago, back when he was working for the New York Press, Ames dated Amy Sohn, another Press sex writer, who later came to work at New York Magazine. This must have been one of the most meta-fantastic relationships in New York history. After sex, you imagine that, instead of a cigarette, they each reached for their laptops.

Sohn has a new novel out now, Prospect Park West, in which a curiously Ames-like character makes a cameo. On the patio in Brooklyn, I ask Ames if he’s read it. He hasn’t. I offer him a copy. He takes it.

In the book, a female character runs into her ex, “a successful comedian” with “a large ski-jump nose” who “seemed more attractive than he actually was.” She’d once “found his tales of heartbreak, road trips, and germaphobia amusing enough—but after hearing them over and over again, she grew bored.” As it turns out, he’s now very successful and dating a “wunderkind Alaskan singer-songwriter.” And on it goes.

Ames skims the pages, reading aloud under his breath. “ ‘Large ski-jump nose’ … Well, this might be a mix of people … Oh, God … this is sounding a lot like me.” Finished, he puts the book down and seems, if not hurt, bewildered. But then he gamely says a few nice things about Sohn: She was a great girl, she really helped him at the time.

Later, we hop in a cab to head to the Bowery Poetry Club where an Ames friend, the performer Reverend Jen, is hosting an open mike for her birthday. “The Bowery Poetry Club—it’s a last bastion of what the East Village used to be,” he says as we enter. Inside we will see ranting poets, and rambling storytellers, and people inexplicably writhing and wrestling with each other to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Ames seems happy. Though in the cab ride over, out of nowhere, he says quietly, “I just don’t understand why people have to be so mean.” At the bar, he mentions this again; in fact, when I run into him in Brooklyn the next week, he’s still nagged by it. Even nakedness, as armor, has its protective limits, I guess.

At the Poetry Club, we’re interrupted when a young guy at the bar calls out: “Hey, aren’t you Jonathan Ames?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I read your graphic novel, The Alcoholic. It was good.”

“Well then, you’re a hell of a critic.”

A friend of Ames’s, standing nearby, says: “The only critics who count are the ones who like you.”

Everyone agrees. Then Ames asks the guy: “What’s your name?”

“Lewis.”

“Bartender—I’d like to buy my new friend Lewis a drink.”

The Coy Exhibitionist