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The Coy Exhibitionist

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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.”


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