Because it's easy, it's therefore tempting to lump Jonathan Ames in with This American Life's wee coffee klatch of Sarah Vowell and Davids Sedaris and Rakoff. Yes, he has a distinct voice and an unconventionally attractive appearance — tall, receding reddish hair; don't ask me how it works it just does — and writes mostly about himself. His humor is dry, and sometimes gross. So what if he's never actually been on This American Life?
But Ames is really in a class all his own. I Love You More Than You Know, his new collection of essays, journalism, and invented words — mostly stuff for McSweeney's — is moving to the point of tears and silly to the point of incontinence. In short, this is a deeply joyous book.
Ames's prose has a simple clarity that's contrasted by his adventures, which are usually depraved, always original, and a lot more tender than one might imagine. He jumps from personal essays about hypochondria to a reported piece on a man who cleans up crime scenes for a living. He even tramps around Memphis for the 2002 Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight, where he meets Budd Schulberg and David Remnick, goes to a swingers' club, and gets stuck by the crotch of his pants on a chain-link fence (though not in that order).
Many who peddle in the first person bank on a humor wrought from perpetual self-deprecation or an over reliance on the shocking confessional. Ames confesses to many things, visiting a French hooker and chronic anal itch — yet you never get the sense he's divulging such things to impress. The details on the anal itch, which I'm quite willing to spare, are too obsessively detailed to be embellished. Ames makes fun of himself, sure, but such things come naturally when you've convinced yourself, among other things, that new underwear and toothbrushes are luxury items.
One of the most endearing aspects of Ames is his ability to make his readers accomplices to his bad behavior. Whether it's getting trashed at the house of a now engaged ex-girlfriend or visiting a suburban dominatrix while his mother baby-sits his son, we're completely on his side even though we probably shouldn't be. And that's part of the fun, wondering why it is you're rooting for him.
I Love You More Than You Know is better than I'm making it out to be, because inasmuch as its author peddles in booze, hookers, and unwanted erections, he also has the heart for life's simple, dare I say pure, pleasures. One of these is recounted in "I Called Myself El Cid," about his collegiate obsession with defeating an archrival in fencing. Reading about this young Princeton boy psyching himself up by being intentionally punched in the face by a teammate, well, it's hard to buy David Brooks' contention that college students haven't had character since the Wilson administration.
Besides that, the story sets up for a pity party and then takes a sharp turn somewhere else. No shocking twist, but a pure celebratory moment: A bulwark against other delightfully sad and honest assessments made throughout this collection. It's a throwaway from another story, but worth repeating here:
"I am part of a vast generation of people who live perpetually as if they have just graduated from college. I am thirty-eight years old. I wear a backpack and have no savings." Maybe this doesn't totally capture what Ames does so well, which is to acknowledge seemingly dismal realities, take ownership of them, and then move forward. Neither doom and gloom, nor obfuscation.
In "My Weiner is Damaged" — you like it already, right? — Ames recounts his quasi-parental, quasi 12-year-old son, who he's always able to get a good laugh out of via fart noises and dick jokes. But it's a different kind of dick joke — seriously — desexualized, and it's a different kind of pleasure than he finds with, say, his various hookers. If I haven't blown enough smoke up Ames' itchy ass, the last thing to praise about this book is how it jumps from personal essays to reported pieces about the late George Plimpton and then back to a Club Med diary.
Ames creates his own joy in these 30 essays—most previously published in The New York Press, Slate, and The Onion—with his unashamed curiosity about almost any topic. Shit, even his mash notes to widely overpraised icons like Kurt Cobain and Jack Kerouac manage to duck cliché. With a less gifted writer, we might need a reprieve from such an array of stunts. With Ames, we don't even ask. Except perhaps for more.