Taking up where he left off in his memoir, What’s Not To Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer (Crown, 2002), Jonathan Ames comes out fighting in My Less Than Secret Life: A Diary, Fiction, Essays. The gloves are literally on, as the pugilist columnist revisits his New York Press “City Slicker” days and his exploits as “The Herring Wonder.” The physicality of boxing is in keeping with Ames’s blunt sexual physicality, and the segment brings a fulfilling close to the examination of identity, gender, and the general disorder of things that Ames initiated in What’s Not To Love?.
Lured into battle by a somewhat malevolent performance artist (the story Ames would have us believe), the author is forced to confront not just masculinity, but the strict societal confines of what masculinity is. Can one be a little bit gay? What does it mean to attempt to escape the parameters of categorization? He wonders how he would fare in prison, and thinks back on his own experience obtaining conscientious objector status to be excused from R.O.T.C. “I’m an escape artist,” writes Ames. Yet, at the same time, Ames continually confronts the hopelessness of such a fancy:
This past weekend, an odd thing happened—I began to feel like I was in prison. I felt infused with the paranoia of that world. On the train and then on the streets of Boston and New York, I trusted no one around me. Violence seemed imminent. I had to be clever and wary at all times. I longed for freedom, even as I am free. I felt like I had done something wrong and was going to be punished.
It is perhaps fitting that My Less Than Secret Life should have itself escaped the clutches of corporate publishing. Ames’s wondering about the conflict of ambition versus quest now takes on a heroic quality. For all his yearning for WASP acceptance, he can’t help but tell George Plimpton, no, he’s not a Boston Ames, he’s a Jewish Ames. And what he most admires about President Clinton, his “hero,” is a shared tendency to misadventure. “Whenever I get into trouble, I think of him and it gives me strength.” The stories and personas that attract Ames span a Warholian divide—there are the very rich and powerful, and there are the very destitute and discarded. Ames himself is the only middle-class actor—the reasonable voice of the common man—and his dilemma is that of many artists and writers in the current moment:
Will my simultaneous yearning for the high and for the low tear me apart in the middle? Can I—metaphorically speaking—admire the David and Mangina at the same time? Can I be an outsider artist, but make a little insider money?
In this vein of woe and wit, Ames identifies with, among others, authors Charles Bukowski and Graham Greene. But the standout among lost cousins is another author whom Ames references. P.G. Wodehouse, the cult hero and literary pariah, addresses his late empire United Kingdom with much of the same fumbling and not-quite-right logic that Ames applies to this late empire United States. Wondering what’s allowed, and never entirely figuring it out, Jonathan Ames, like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, gets out of trouble, yes, but only to get into it again.
It is a thankless job. A life of sexual indulgence, coupled with a life of faultless honesty, is bound to lead to embarrassing moments. Girlfriends hear queer tales. People turn to you to diagnose a communicable disease. Dad accompanies you to a porn shoot. Ames himself speculates, “I should sue myself for libel.” But, there are high points—the beautiful transexual who returns after a ten year absence, a human moment with a middle-aged prostitute in a woodlands sex-district of an “old European city.” Ames, for all his escapades, struggles to always retain his charm, his faith in people, and his own code of honor. So, despite any nervous misgivings, we must hand over the keys, and trust him with our apartments, and quit accusing him of bad, abnormal behavior in front of nice, normal girls—and thus allow him to flourish in his odd life as if her were no odder than the rest of us, which he probably isn’t.
From youthful mistakes to the wiser mistakes that come with experience, My Less Than Secret Life traverses a span of almost 20 years. Ames, the young Princeton prodigy, and the later-years insolvent writer, rides his ups and downs with humor and a comforting sadness. While there is no sudden catharsis, Ames, besides being the patron saint of his own “little white dog,” grows into a father who does manage to get tickets to the WWF, and a nephew who happily accompanies his elderly aunt on a visit to the doctor’s office.
Readers of Jonathan Ames will learn things. Fiber supplements—psyllium—for healthy bowels. Lox for depression. The origin of the color “bice.” If not for the yucks, if not for the sex, if not for the pathos, the “secret of the Eleventh Commandment” is reason enough to run out, part with 15 dollars, and pick up a copy of Ames’s latest endeavor, My Less Than Secret Life.
John Reed's novels include A Still Small Voice (Delacorte 2000) and Snowball's Chance, which will be published by Roof Books this September. He lives in Manhattan.