I Love You More Than You Know
Jonathan Ames (Grove/Black Cat)
Early on in Jonathan Ames's entertaining new collection of personal essays he settles in for a bath, blows his nose, and lets what comes out--"an interesting sculpture . . . with some dark blood in it"--swish around in the bathwater with him. This is apparently a habit. "I try to keep an eye out for the mucus, to make sure it doesn't get tangled in my leg hair," he writes, "but usually it just disappears and then I try to forget about the whole thing." But this time he suddenly realizes that what he assumes is the snot blob is actually a drowning cockroach. He goes ape shit.
Ames is disgusted by lots of things--the wart on his cock, the itch in his ass, a giant zit that oozes in the night, his cruddy toothbrush, his irritable bowel syndrome, his nose picking. I Love You More Than You Know chronicles those and other bodily, emotional, and material failings in unaffected comic prose. "I am thirty-eight years old," he writes. "I wear a backpack and have no savings. I console myself with the thought that people live longer nowadays so it makes sense that some of us take longer to mature." The act of exposing his many small humiliations and existential fears itself provides more fodder. "I should sue myself for libel," he writes. "Girls may want to meet me, but no one actually takes my writing seriously. My whole oeuvre has become one big dysfunctional personal ad."
Like David Sedaris, to whom comparisons are frequent and justified, Ames calibrates his work for today's casual reader: each self-deprecating essay is supershort, may include some gross-out humor, and requires no intellectual work on the reader's part. Like his other essay collections, What's Not to Love? and My Less Than Secret Life (he's also written three novels), this book is perfect for a train commute or short flight.
Ames, who's also known for his comic stage performances, seems poised to attain Sedaris-esque success as a pop essayist, but like David Rakoff, who's also constantly compared to Sedaris, he's got his own thing going. Sedaris often turns to his imagination in his finer moments--his hilarious, horrifying visions of what could happen. Ames traffics exclusively in observations about what is, whether freaky or banal. He's frequently sexually explicit, ensuring a narrower audience. My parents and I can laugh together at Sedaris's dispatches from Paris, but we'd have a harder time sharing "Rue St. Denis" (in which Ames nearly fails to fuck a middle-aged French prostitute), "No Contact, Asshole!" (about stealing away from a visit with his parents and young son in suburban New Jersey for an S-M session), or "Whores, Writers, and a Pimple: My Trip to Europe" (self-explanatory).
The sexual dalliances are amusing at first, but they swiftly wear thin. There's only so much mileage you can get out of cheap sex, the self-hatred it brings, and boy-and-his-toy talk. More compelling is Ames's willingness to occasionally drop the hip trou of comic candor and flash the other tender parts. He offers this reflection: "Inside my head, behind my eyes and beneath my bald dome, is a lingering, mild depression, which causes me to procrastinate and not do simple tasks like cleaning my reading glasses or to begin important tasks like writing my version of War and Peace. Generally speaking, my depression manifests itself as this feeling of subtle displacement from my life. Everything seems to be rushing by, and I'm floating above it all, reaching my hand out to life, but not quite grasping it, like waving your hand for a taxi that is clearly occupied."
Here and elsewhere, in essays stocked with stand-up quips, he's putting to use the advice teachers of personal-essay writing are forever giving students: don't be afraid to be vulnerable, to write about your own foibles and fears openly. But talking candidly about your depressive self-loathing can make readers squirm, so it's a bit of a commercial risk. (This might be part of Sedaris's appeal: he rarely plumbs emotional depths.) Ames manages to keep readers comfortable because his displays of vulnerability ultimately serve to make us laugh. Almost anyone can relate to his witty explorations of, as he puts it, "how humiliating it is to have a body." His take on being periodically broke, drunkenly enraged, and shadowed by the black dog can be great, validating fun--you get the urge to fire up the blog and confess. Not surprisingly, Ames says he gets earfuls of unsolicited secrets from his readers.
Then again, some may find his comic-depressive persona disingenuous, particularly post-Frey. After all, Ames graduated from Princeton, has written six books, is just over 40, and quit drinking some years ago. For a guy fixated on failure, he's nearly a poster boy for success.
A handful of pieces in I Love You More Than You Know, including the title essay, about Ames's visit with his beloved Aunt Doris, are downright sentimental, even saccharine--the last thing you'd expect from a contemporary humorist. They're hardly representative, but they persuaded me that his neurosis is authentic, that behind the humor lie genuine sincerity and an embattled heart.
"Hot and Bothered: An Evening in Bed" with Jonathan Ames, Neal Pollack, and Lynn Harris
When: Wed 2/8, 7 PM
Where: Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
Info: 312-747-4074, nextbook.org