February 2006

Joanna Petrone

nonfiction

I Love You More Than You Know by Jonathan Ames

There is a scene, a small domestic tableau, in an essay in I Love You More Than You Know that in a few deft gestures gets to the heart of not merely this collection but the entire Jonathan Ames oeuvre and, one is badly tempted to conjecture, Ames himself:

I held the hotdog in front of my crotch, and drawled like a madman, ‘Oh, no, I forked my wiener... My wiener is damaged!’... my mother was shouting, “Why can’t we have a nice meal!?!” My father looked up from his plate and there was a twinkle in his strange eyes... "You’re insane," said my son, his puberty-addled voice cracking, his eyes watering, "you’re sick!" But he was smiling happily and my parents were laughing, too. Then I calmed down and we all resumed eating.

The vulnerability of manhood, the body’s infinite humiliations, the disappointments suffered by fathers and sons, the drama and solace of family, insanity, his penis -- these are among the leitmotifs to which Ames, in his third collection of non-fiction, returns.

Prodigal son Ames culls his role models, “all of them equally alcoholic and self-destructive,” from an older generation of male writers including Thompson and Bukowski, but plays the horny, blotto writer for laughs: “I once prayed in my drunkenness to my holy trinity of Kerouac, Fitzgerald and Hemmingway to look after me from their alcoholic heaven.” In truth, he lacks their machismo. Ames cavorts with prostitutes, but he also goes to therapy to talk about the bad feelings afterwards. He’s too neurotic and self-deprecating to be cool, which is precisely what makes Ames so endearing.

On the genealogical tree of literature, Ames sits much closer to Philip Roth (or even Woody Allen) than he does to Hemmingway or Kerouac. Jersey-born, Jewish, only slightly more preoccupied with his sexual perversions than he is with his bowel movements, Jonathan Ames could easily be the kinder, sensitive, metrosexual nephew of Alex Portnoy.

In a piece titled “The Thick Man,” Ames recalls trysting with a young German tourist in Battery Park when the Holocaust Museum unexpectedly catches his eye: “The Museum wasn’t happy with my behavior. Forty-five years ago, her people were gassing my people. But she’s innocent, I thought, protesting to the building.” The Museum, however, keeps its distance -- as museums so often do -- and the pair continues their behavior, one thing leading to the next, and before you can say "Himmler" Mr. Ames’ friend is leading his hand to her Teutonic behind for a spanking. Her ass is “round and firm and white. Quite beautiful” so naturally Jonathan looks back to the Holocaust Museum. “Is this better? I asked, silently, in my mind. I figured that corporally punishing a German had to give the Museum some solace.”

For readers familiar with Jonathan Ames’s previous collections, this is familiar terrain. Ames has matured somewhat since his last book of nonfiction, My Less Than Secret Life -- his essays about his family, for instance, are enriched by a restraint that allows more melancholy notes to come through -- but the development is small and undramatic.

Inexplicably, “definitions” of concepts for an American utopia appear between every fourth or so essay. So incongruous with the rest of the collection, these little flights of whimsy seem plucked from McSweeney’s and airlifted into I Love You More Than You Know, which, basically, they were. Written for The Future Dictionary of America, a McSweeneys project “for describing what the future might look like,” you can smell the Eggers on them from a mile a way -- which is to say that their sensibility is more in keeping with that book than it is with this one.

While we’re picking at nits, Jonathan Ames also plays it a little fast and loose with the footnotes, interrupting his own delightful essays at times to direct my attention towards some other book or article he wrote. I am never in favor of commercial intrusions.

That’s small potatoes, though. I Love You More Than You Know is a pleasure to read, and simply too winning for a few minor annoyances to really drag it down. Plus, Ames has this to say after confessing his musical preferences tend towards the likes of Indigo Girls and Suzanne Vega: “You know, it’s very embarrassing to be revealing this about myself. It’s like saying I’m heterosexual but I’m sitting on a butt plug as I write this.”

I Love You More Than You Know by Jonathan Ames
Grove Press, Black Cat
ISBN: 080217017X
240 Pages