Jonathan Ames once told a crowd of people at Fez about the first time he ejaculated, and then brought his mother on stage to read a poem about it. He has had a one-man show called Oedipussy. He is solely to blame for the performance career of Patrick Bucklew, who wears a prosthetic leg and a prosthetic vagina and goes by the moniker “the Mangina.” As a performer, the man is sex-obsessed. As a writer, he’s more than “mildly perverted,” he’s a serious exhibitionist.
Ames has written one novel about prostitutes and another about the adventures of a tranny-chasing young gentleman from New Jersey. What’s Not to Love is a collection of two stories and 31 installments from his New York Press biweekly column, City Slicker, where he “drop[ped] his pants for the world to see.” Luckily, he’s also a competent storyteller. He used the column as a sweat rag for his daily life, with no holds barred, and no tolerance for modesty. The entries are not much more than free-writes about misadventures and sexcapades (often unsuccessful), but Ames’s prose is graceful, and his work has a flip side—a contradictorily stern, moralistic tone: “I was pierced with desire. Then that desire turned into depression. . . . I felt old and ridiculous and sad, and for the nine millionth time in my life, I masturbated.”
This is not new territory. In fact, Ames is like a modernist because he borrows from Roth, Bellow, and Miller, who obsessed over their own psychoses and libidos enough to make them the type of people you might want to meet but not touch, as someone once said of Philip Roth. As you read on, though, you begin to notice that there is a generous performer winking behind the ruminations. His self-parodying attention to bodily afflictions (both real and imagined) recalls Woody Allen frantically scheduling appointments with specialists in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Like any good (albeit shticky) performer—Allen, Seinfeld, and a thousand Catskills comedians before them—Ames openly provokes the reader to have fun at his own expense, even as he admits to thoughts of suicide. And he generally succeeds. Somehow, even when he’s literally full of crap (“I Shit My Pants in the South of France,” “Enemas, a Love Story”), he manages at least to amuse, usually by relating his own pain in the disaffected tone of an observer: “I munched on the cheese stick while the publisher praised my work and then suddenly I felt a crushing spasm in my colon.” If you can handle this kind of intimacy with Jonathan Ames, you’ll also find that he can be a pleasure, even through the stomach pain.