Jokes and Other Literary Pleasures
Love You More Than You Know
Cat, 240 pages, $14
Because it’s easy, it’s there- fore tempting to lump Jonathan
Ames in with This American Life’s wee koffee klatch
of Sarah Vowell and David 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
he writes mostly about himself. His humor is dry, and sometimes
gross. So what if he’s never actually been on This American
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—don’t ask, it’s 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’ 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 overreliance on the
shocking confessional. Ames confesses to many things, like
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 babysits
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.
Love You More Than You Know is better than I’m making
it out to be, because in so much 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.
Though it’s a throwaway from another story, it’s worth repeating
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 acknowledge
seemingly dismal realities, take ownership of them and then
move forward. Neither doom and gloom, nor obfuscation.
In “My Wiener Is Damaged”—you love it already, right?—Ames
talks about his quasi-parental, quasi-12-year-old son, whom
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.
It’s 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