Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by John Dicker, Fri., May 19, 2006
I Love You More Than You Know
by Jonathan Ames
Black Cat, 240 pp., $14 (paper)
Because it's easy, it's tempting to lump Jonathan Ames in with This American Life's coffee klatch of Sarah Vowell and Davids Sedaris and Rakoff. Yes, Ames has a distinct voice and writes mostly about himself and is wry and unconventionally attractive. So what if he's never actually been on the radio program?
But Ames is really in a class all his own. I Love You More Than You Know, his latest collection of essays, journalism, and invented words (don't ask: It was for McSweeney's) is moving to the point of tears and silly to the point of incontinence. In short, this is a joyous book. Ames' prose has a simple clarity that's contrasted by his adventures, which are depraved, original, and oddly tender. Many who peddle in the first person rely on a humor of perpetual self-deprecation, or a reliance on the confessional. Ames confesses to many things visiting French hookers, for instance, and chronic anal itch but you never get the sense he's recounting these things to impress us one way or the other.
Part of this author's talent is a knack for quietly making his readers accomplices in his bad behavior. Whether it's getting trashed at the house of a now engaged ex-girlfriend, visiting a suburban dominatrix while his mother babysits his son, we're on his side even though we probably shouldn't be. And that's part of the fun: wondering why we're rooting for him. The answer, I think, lies in the fact that even as he peddles in booze and smut, Ames has a wonderful instinct for life's simple, dare I say pure, pleasures. Some are 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 having a teammate punch him in the face, well, it's impossible to buy David Brooks' contention that college students haven't had any character since the Wilson administration.
In "My Weiner Is Damaged," we're with Ames and his 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. If I haven't blown enough smoke up Ames' itchy ass, the last thing to love about this collection is how it jumps from personal essays to reported pieces about a man who cleans up crime scenes and then to a quasi personal account about covering the Tyson-Lewis fight in Memphis. Even his mash notes to overpraised icons like Kurt Cobain and Kerouac escape cliché. With a less gifted writer, we might need a reprieve from such wide-ranging stunts. With Ames, it doesn't even occur to us.