“Before I begin reading, my name is Jonathan Ames and I’m going to do two bits of self-promotion,” the wiry, sharp-suited writer announces after powering up to the stage at the Lower East Side rock club Pianos. Thin wisps of facial hair shade from platinum to orange, giving Ames the look of a Van Gogh self-portrait with a shaved head. Ames is alerting his eager fans to his film cameos—one as an extra in the porn flick C Men, the other in an indie movie on IFC that features Cyndi Lauper’s husband.
Six readers have already performed tonight to launch the new literary mag Swink, and most have bombed—either burying their punch lines in mumbles or emoting like hyperventilating beatniks. But Ames is the evening’s ace in the hole. Ask fans of storytelling whom they still remember seeing—or whom they’ve always wanted to see, based purely on reputation—and Ames’s name will top the list. For more than a decade, he’s given hundreds of performances—as often as once a week—at established venues like KGB and the National Arts Club, one-offs like the Gershwin Hotel, and hipster upstarts like Galapagos and Happy Ending. He hosted his own variety show at Fez for much of the nineties. Tonight, he revs up his thirtyish, bed-headed fans by extracting a two-foot-long wax object. “Just so people understand, this is an ear candle,” says Ames, in a stentorian deadpan that indeed suggests clogged ears. And before long, we’re deep in Ames country, as he details one of his sexual-adventure tales in an accelerating staccato, eyeing his own words suspiciously, at arm’s length. “I gave her sweet kisses, put the tongue in, did my best work,” he says, and hazards a double entendre on “grinding myself into her rug.” The crowd roars.
The novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl, one of Ames’s L.A. friends, calls Ames’s shtick “silk-stocking raunch.” But the writer has long had a complicated relationship with the reputation he’s built both onstage and in his scatological, sexually obsessive columns in the New York Press (eventually collected in two books). It’s an aesthetic prison of sorts, and Ames is making a break for it with two new endeavors: his dirty but erudite third novel, Wake Up, Sir!, and a pilot for a major cable network, tentatively titled What’s Not to Love? (after his first essay collection) and starring, written, and co-produced by Ames. After twelve years of refining that booming voice and those low-life stories, the self-proclaimed “George Plimpton of the colon” might just molt into the Seinfeld of the Lower East Side. If he’s very, very lucky.
“I was conceived in the Catskills, born in New York City,” says Ames, surveying the Village on a balmy afternoon from a sidewalk café on Perry Street. The Borscht Belt was where 9-year-old Ames had his first gig, when a “Jackie Mason type” took Jonathan for an easy mark, only to get a wisecrack in response. He was brought onstage for more banter, and got a standing ovation. “So the next night I went on again,” he says. “But I froze. Which often happens to me in life. Being captain of the saber squad at Princeton and then getting disqualified. Or being a model and getting my nose broken in a bar fight in Paris. I would always rise up and then disintegrate. I published a novel in ’89”—I Pass Like Night, which came out of a Princeton thesis for Joyce Carol Oates, with a glowing blurb from Philip Roth—“and couldn’t write another book for years. Now I don’t have that problem as much; now I keep kind of plugging along.”
“Every time now in the papers, it’s like, ‘Pervert, pervert, pervert.’ I should have associated myself with the word genius, like Eggers.”
Ames’s material can seem like an endless riff on such humiliations. As a child, he wore a back truss and had an undescended testicle, and in his writing—his self-mythology—a close circle of fourth-grade friends helped his testicle descend through the healing powers of a primal scream he’s named “The Hairy Call.” He gave the shout—imagine a walrus with a fur ball caught in its throat—on Letterman; then it became a song by the literary-hipster band One Ring Zero. When he does it for me, out on Perry Street, the local sophisticates pointedly ignore the yelp as they would the call of visiting frat boys on Saturday nights. (It doesn’t help that he’s been remarking on every fifth woman who saunters by.)
Ames is hoping for decidedly warmer reactions to his breakout scream of self-promotion this summer. Step one is his novel, a hilarious romp intended to remind readers that the comic neurotic is also a talented writer. The allusive and only intermittently vulgar Wake Up, Sir! is Ames’s tribute to the Yaddo writers’ retreat by way of P. G. Wodehouse. Insipid protagonist Alan Blair and his personal valet (who, as in the Wodehouse novels, is named Jeeves) flee suburban New Jersey for northern climes—first the healing Catskills, then the illustrious Rose Colony. The artists’ retreat is essentially Yaddo, where Ames the real-life recovering “dipsomaniac” worked at staying sober, honing his act, and completing his second novel, The Extra Man (which sounds a lot like Blair’s novel-in-progress.) Back when Ames was surviving on food handouts from Fez, Yaddo was the equivalent of Bertie Wooster’s social escapes. “For a few weeks,” he says. “Yaddo kisses you, and you go from frog to prince.”
But unlike Ames, Blair seems incapable of transforming. He enters the Rose Colony a drunk and leaves a drunk. Like Wooster, he is nothing more than a bundle of affectations. Blair has Jeeves lay out “writing garments” in the hopes that a Brooks Brothers tie dappled with fountain pens will expedite the creative process. He has “a preference for British spellings, but not the conviction to use them.” He sports a mustache in the style of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Even Blair’s Wodehouse fixation is merely an imitation of Norman Cousins, who reputedly “healed himself of cancer by overdosing on comedic films.” It’s an identity crisis; there is nothing original about him (even his Portnoy-ish perversions), and he knows it.
But the book’s charm is in its insistent self-referential lunacy, its friction between literary fantasy and lowly appetites. Blair asks Jeeves whether his work-in-progress “should at least have a fistfight, don’t you think, like in Dashiell Hammett”; a few chapters later he has a fistfight himself, shortly after indulging in more Hammett (and several pitchers of beer). Wielding preemptive irony like a blunter, more frankly libidinal Dave Eggers, Ames seems to be exorcising his own fear that he’s every bit the hack that Blair is. But then, so is every writer, and Blair’s shamelessness is a window onto Ames’s endearing honesty. For Blair, writing is theft; writing is wish fulfillment (“I’d like to have an outer-body experience. Maybe the character based on me could have one” is a typical note-to-self); writing is ventriloquism (Blair keeps a list of ramblings to assign randomly to his characters). At its worst, writing is lazy and useless, but its truthfulness can be redemptive. “People don’t expect too much from literature,” Blair tells Jeeves in full-on wise-fool mode. “They just want to know they’re not alone with being confused.”
Most important for Ames, the book is a comedy—written by someone who’s cast aside the beginner’s brooding and blocks. “For my first book, I was influenced by Last Exit to Brooklyn and Raymond Carver,” says Ames. “But later I was really into A Confederacy of Dunces and Oscar Wilde. I got into funny books.”
Nothing short of a Sedaris-style miracle, though, would rescue him from an even more common writerly hardship—the plight of the unsold mid-list novelist. Ames’s books sell respectably, but his relative obscurity becomes all too apparent every time he enters a bookstore. That’s where the cable show comes in. “It’s easy to romanticize the poverty, but at a certain point it gets kind of boring,” says Eric Bogosian, whose writing Ames performed at P.S. 122 last year. “He’s 40, he’s got books all over, and he can barely make ends meet. He’s looking for a way to relieve himself of that situation, and that’s understandable.”
“I’m my own worst publicist,” Ames says. “One thing that has upset me over the years is that I subtitled What’s Not to Love? ‘The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer.’ Every time now in the papers, it’s like, ‘Pervert, pervert, pervert.’ What was I thinking?! I should have associated my name with the word genius, like Dave Eggers.”
“Nothing short of a Sedaris-style mirac le could rescue him from that writerly hardship—the plight of the unsold mid-list novelist.”
How does a cult star become a marketable character? Ames, ever conscious of his persona, seems to be toning it down. A couple of years ago, he stopped writing about his polymorphously perverse friend Patrick Bucklew, an alter ego of sorts with a prosthetic leg, after his editor at the New York Press told him that “Patrick’s stump is becoming your crutch.” But finally, it all comes down to Ames’s image. “Jonathan goes marching boldly into this territory called Jonathanworld,” says Bogosian, “and if it does work—if he can pull us into Jonathanworld and make it so compelling that we don’t know how we ever lived without it—then it becomes something like Larry David.”
Ames seems resigned about the issue of selling out. “You’re just going to get old at some point,” he says. “You were kind of hip and a discovered treasure, and then at some point, everybody finds out about you and nobody reads you. I didn’t read David Sedaris because he was a best-seller. I finally picked up a book of his, and it was great. If you get a backlash, that means you get some money in the bank. I’m into flogging—no, I’m not. But I’ll accept the backlash when it comes.”
By which he means, if it comes. “It’s been almost a whole year from a pitch to a green light,” Ames says of the TV-pilot-making process—with his series still a distant possibility. “Sort of the way Fitzgerald had the green light at the end of the Long Island Sound in Gatsby. This is the green light from Hollywood—I see the green light!”