Jonathan Ames thinks his own bowel movements are fascinating. If you are repulsed or bored by bowel movements, erections, and compulsive nose picking, you will feel the same way about his writing. But if you are even slightly amused, titillated, or impressed by the candor of discussing shit, you will appreciate Ames’s odd charm.
The writer has built his career, including three previous books, a New York Press column, and the one-man Off-Off-Broadway show Oedipussy, on a Woody Allen-like cocktail of self-deprecation, surrealism, and sex. In a quintessential scene from My Less Than Secret Life he finds himself, with his friend and frequent subject Harry Chandler, inventor of the Mangina, a wearable vagina sculpture for men, barred from an orgy in the West Village for arriving without dates. “I think human beings don’t realize the full extent of the misery they’re in all the time,” he tells Harry. “All the buildings, taxis, groceries . . . bars! It’s all a mad distraction to the pain of being alive.” Ludicrous, prurient, but with disarming flashes of sincerity—this is the Ames Formula.
“Most men . . . lead lives of quiet desperation, but I, to bring in some money, lead a life of public desperation,” he tells us in the essay “Restraint of Tongue and Penis.” Despair springs eternal for Ames—he is balding, single, a lapsed recovering alcoholic, a former phone-sex addict, and until recently financially dependent on his parents. Moreover, as a sex writer, he gravitates toward porn sets, Mexican strip clubs, and transvestite prostitute bars, all settings rich in desperation material.
Ames milks the most laughs from his status as a chronic victim of mistaken identity—he is a blond-eyebrowed Jew masquerading among WASPs; he is hailed as an “openly gay writer” at the Princeton Club in the presence of his lovely girlfriend. This almost becomes a serious theme, of assimilation and sexual fluidity, but Ames is too skittish to focus on it for any length of time. The short stories probably should not have been included. They seem to have been excerpted from the letters column of Hot Teen Sluts—girls in tennis skirts, sexed-up coeds. What is endearingly pathetic as fantasy is just skeevy when those fantasies are fictionally fulfilled. But for the most part, Ames maintains the reader’s sympathy for, and amusement at, himself at his lowest, sometimes even with sparks of recognition. You should buy the book—he probably needs the money.