THE WORK of Jonathan Ames is among the ultimate guilty pleasures. His subject matter often veers deep into the underground—deviancy, alcoholism and perversion—yet the vigour and audacity of his writing elevates him close to high literature. Through three novels and three collections of newspaper columns, Ames has laid bare a soul full of contradictions: he is tortured, fallible and instinctively depraved, but also urbane and achingly affectionate.
His writing is no mere titillation. As a journalist Ames is a thorough, empathetic and keen-sighted observer who has grown into a diligent chronicler both of 21st century urban life and even, grandly, the human condition. He is also unflinchingly funny, prompting tears of embarrassment, recognition, fear, shock and shame—and with obvious mainstream appeal. A film of his novel The Extra Man is currently in production, and Jason Schwartzman will play Ames in an HBO series beginning this month based on a short story, Bored To Death, that appears in his latest collection.
The title of that book, The Double Life Is Twice As Good, hints at the scope of Ames’s talents, and his ability to inhabit numerous skins. The book represents a house-clearance of sorts, bringing together uncollected fiction with diary extracts, celebrity profiles and various magazine articles, as well as a section entitled “Personal Essays”, comprising Ames’s off-assignment work.
While he often appears to be off the leash, all his tales are underpinned by a rare honesty and a conscientious dedication to uncovering whatever truth lurks within. Whether he is quaffing absinthe with Marilyn Manson, spooning cocaine-addled amputees in five-star hotels, or talking to homeless denizens of lower Manhattan, Ames is invariably professional and involved.
The high points of The Double Life Is Twice As Good—and there are many—show an artist attempting to balance his own unease and paranoia with a journalist’s desire both to learn and to educate. Epiphany does not come easily, but Ames does not expect it to; understanding demands stamina, research and the daring to ask the difficult question either of himself or his subjects.
In one memorable passage, after watching Andre Agassi ruthlessly demolish a young rookie in the first round of the US Open, Ames stands among a room of grizzled, salty tennis hacks and asks Agassi: “Do you ever feel bad defeating your opponents?” This is seemingly too facile to be a sport journalist’s question, but Agassi’s answer, full of contemplation and respect, says more about the mentality of a champion than hundreds of platitudes found on the back pages, and serves only to enhance the reputation of the inquisitor.
Ames is invariably present in his own narratives, but a dry self-deprecation ensures his insecurities never become tired through numerous iterations, and he remains humbled and fascinated by others. It is frequently the reader’s privilege to join him in his wide-eyed wonderment of the world around, and to find comfort in his modest discoveries.
“It occurs to me that I’m inwardly apocalyptic and these people are outwardly apocalyptic,” he writes after Spin magazine mischievously dumped him, and his ubiquitous seersucker jacket, amid the ashen faces and aggressive eyeliner of Gothicfest 2005. “I may dress like a somewhat libidinous college professor, but in my heart of hearts, I’m in a state of dark despair about the world. But are these people embracing the apocalypse while I’m nervously awaiting it? I may not look the part, but in my own way, I belong here.”
This book includes a wide cast of characters—Lenny Kravitz, Manson, burlesque artists, prostitutes and Ames’s numerous alter-egos, among others—and it’s important to note that Ames frequently writes about graphic sexual practices and encounters: the easily offended and/or squeamish should stay away. But you should also be advised that he is a fine writer, who may soon find himself swallowed by the mainstream.
One hopes that the contrary is true, that overdue widespread recognition will offer the confidence and freedom to explore his talents to the full. So far, every facet of Ames’s work and persona is incorrigibly fascinating: as hero or coward; struggling writer or literary heavyweight; committed father or deranged explorer; high-brow journalist or perverted decadent. The double lives are very, very good indeed.