For over two years, Ames also penned the “City Slicker” column for the New York Press — a throwaway weekly its editors saw as an opportunity left by The Village Voice’s loss of edge. Ames’s pieces, some collected in My Less Than Secret Life, reflect a wise-ass-by-design, exposing a level of prurience, irreverence, existential and sexual ineptitude, casual misogyny, and self-generated notoriety that most writers would resist — particularly in the judgmental present-day social environment exempting few besides Donald Trump. With essays like “I Shit My Pants in the South of France” and “Bald, Impotent and Depressed” (both in What’s Not to Love?), Ames projected himself as an amiable lowlife of the smart set, drawing on several recognizable literary personae, including, it seemed, Holden Caulfield, Alexander Portnoy, Hunter S. Thompson, and Oscar Wilde. He epitomized a loose, unserious, and fleeting Seinfeldian moment, noodling unfiltered on his and everyone else’s shortcomings.
Ames’s confessional columns chronicled what most people don’t want to know: his dedication to masturbation (“What lasts longer than a cock?”); his adventures in constipation and relief; the trauma of early balding; his adoration of an unattainable waitress’s ass; his unsuccessful attempt to gain admission to an orgy; and his inadvertent ejaculation into brand-name khakis at the hand of a Cuban hooker operating under a table in a hotel lobby in Havana, which he explained as a spilled mojito to disconcerted friends. He also revealed a commitment to the human domestication of violence in the form of boxing, training at Gleason’s Gym as “The Herring Wonder” (securing halitosis as a ring weapon by eating pickled fish), and fighting a couple of amateur bouts, one with a broken nose. But even Thompson couldn’t maintain the gonzo standard he’d set with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Ames’s gaudily intimate self-revelation got tired.
“I’m quitting the column because I can’t stand writing about myself anymore,” he wrote.
Twenty-eight months I’ve been doing this, and I’m sure a normal person would have grown tired of such a task long ago, but that’s because a normal person doesn’t have a narcissistic disorder the way I do. […] I feel that for long enough I’ve bared my soul and dropped my pants in this biweekly space.
His remedy was not to quit writing but rather to write fiction.
This was a wise decision. His first novel, I Pass Like Night, which started as his college thesis and had been published in 1989, suggested deeper worries. It was a bleak affair, involving a young Jewish man who spurns the bourgeois life he has been bequeathed, using the tips he makes as a Four Seasons doorman to liaise with rent boys on the Lower East Side and risking AIDS infection. Yet his second novel, The Extra Man, published while he was still churning out the “City Slicker,” incorporated the same oafish vulgarity and mordantly droll tone as his columns while presenting a character coming of age. Styling himself a “young gentleman,” Louis Ives, the narrator, is a recent Princeton grad who loses his teaching job when he’s caught trying on a colleague’s bra. He finds a job at an environmental magazine in Manhattan and rents a room from Henry Harrison, a didactically retrograde elder bachelor and resolute oddball. (“Men face reality, women don’t. That’s why men need to drink.”) He mentors Louis in the art of cash-poor social climbing as Louis walks clandestinely on the wild side. After one watershed encounter, Louis reflects: “The most incredible thing in my life had just happened and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, because how could I explain that I was deep in Queens late at night with a transsexual.”
That sentiment, while conveying an empathetic and expansive authorial instinct, remains at the level of flippancy. Shame catches up with Louis, but when it threatens to debilitate him, he reverts to Clinton-era existential breeziness: “[L]ying on my bed, my belly sticky with my problems, I didn’t have time to think about suicide. I had to clean up and get to work.” Louis continues to discreetly embrace a transgender lifestyle while finding refuge in high-end freeloading and near-gigolo-dom under Henry’s tutelage. Ames does reveal a more profound awareness that life can turn out tragic. Louis finds a photograph of Henry at 25, fit and shirtless: “I was crying because that boy had no idea what he would become, that fifty years later he’d be sleeping on a mean little couch in a filthy room.” But after registering the thought, Ames leaves it to dangle, as though concluding that he was too young to consign himself to lugubriousness.
Wake Up, Sir!, published in 2004 and winningly written in the style of P. G. Wodehouse, is basically a more evolved companion to The Extra Man. Both books, especially The Extra Man, are by design picaresque, discursive, and anecdotal; Ames’s proclivity for loose association gives them considerable energy if not tight coherence. The narrator Alan Blair — who travels with a deferentially Socratic valet named Jeeves, naturally — has many hang-ups akin to Louis Ives’s, including a more severe case of alcoholism, leading him to forgo rehab in favor of a writer’s residency at the Yaddo-like Rose Colony, which he apprehends as a platform for drinking and screwing. At the same time, he acquires greater agency and concern about his fate. In this connection, Alan reflects to Jeeves, “all I really need in life, reading-wise, is Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.” He expresses a reductive impulse, extolling the genre detective’s ability to manage existential complications with a tight personal code of conduct that leaves room for, and even exploits, human messiness. (In contrast, while Henry Harrison acted as though he had such a code, his insistent edicts were really just devices for eluding the complications of life.) The final lines of Wake Up, Sir!, in which Alan imagines his mother singing him a favorite song as he and Jeeves flee the Rose Colony after Alan has committed several petty crimes, would not be out of place a noirish detective novel:
And so I drove without light. The road was black and the drop was sheer and frightening. Then from far away, I heard a voice calling out. There was no more darkness. A concrete embankment replaced it. The voice called to me again, just in time.
“Wake up, sir! Wake up.”
The literary tropes Ames had thus far deployed — the self-endangering libertine, the would-be young gentleman, the intoxicated searcher, the hard-bitten man who lives by a code — indicated intellectual progression, but the self-destructive man still seemed a joke to him. He also stayed heavily invested in a kind of grunge sensibility, resisting any pretentions to respectability, marketability, or literary anointment that could repress his oft-untoward inclinations. A year before Wake Up, Sir! was published, a men’s magazine sent him to a Club Med resort in Turks and Caicos, expecting an article that celebrated naughty frat-boy hedonism. What he filed was a diary of neurotic angst and romantic inefficacy, laced with querulous disquisitions about sunburn, acne, jock itch, and athletic incompetence. The magazine declined to publish the piece, but it appeared as “Club Existential Dread” in McSweeney’s. Later, he wrote “The Failed Comb-over” for the now-defunct online sex magazine Nerve, in which he chronicles his futile attempt to convince an ex-girlfriend that he hadn’t had sex with another woman the night before, claiming that a long blonde hair the ex found in his bed was part of a Trump-esque stratagem to conceal his bald spot. Ames’s easy insouciance seemed perhaps too comfortable a default to the devil he knew.
Yet he did not give in to complacency, and proved his ambition and versatility. Ames created and wrote the TV series Bored to Death, which HBO aired from 2009 to 2011; here he tried to make more sense of current history. The show concerns a struggling New York writer named Jonathan Ames who impulsively offers his services as an unlicensed private investigator on Craigslist, after his girlfriend dumps him over his alcohol and marijuana addictions. This reimagined Ames has read so much Chandler that he’s convinced himself he can be Philip Marlowe, just as Don Quixote had read so many tales of chivalry that he fancied himself a knight. Beyond that, Ames sees a New York whose inhabitants struggle to balance neurotic everyday concerns about sex, self-medication, and the like against the lethal threats laid bare by 9/11. Evil lurks, and beckons men of action. Of course, the TV Ames is still a wannabe player operating in the Obama-era bubble of supposed post-9/11, post-torture, post-racial recovery. His distinctive characteristic, like that of Louis and Alan, is his ineffectuality. By the time Bored to Death ended, Ames said in an otherwise jaunty piece in the New York Times, “I seem to have run out of dreams for myself.”
There was wisdom in that. Having squeezed all he could out of the gonzo mode and its variations, Ames decided to pivot abruptly from comedic writing to something entirely new, along the lines of a dark Greenean “entertainment.” He unveiled the bone-lean genre crime novella You Were Never Really Here in 2012 with Byliner, an upstart long-form online publisher that has since been engulfed and devoured, before Pushkin Press brought out the actual book in early 2013. Stylistically, it is diametric to the previous two novels: tight, terse, and largely drained of humor. Substantively, it’s a more searching and sober exploration of the self-destructive man than he has ever before attempted. Joe, a PTSD-stricken ex-Marine and former FBI agent who lives with his declining widowed mother in Rego Park, hires out to rescue underage girls from the sex trade. He is tentatively suicidal, and when he succumbs to bad vibes and wraps his head in a plastic bag as he had as a battered child, he hears a voice say, It’s all right, you can go, you were never really here.
Although Joe sees a world of limitless corruption that taxes his baseline cynicism, something keeps him from completing the task of killing himself. There are still innocents to be rescued. As Ames puts it: “He found that he could still function exceedingly well as a weapon, and he had never stopped living as if he was undercover. It had become a permanent state.” So Joe does what he can with his ball-peen hammer to punish the worst and save the weakest. Unlike Ames’s other protagonists, Joe is emphatically effectual, a dystopian utilitarian. The tragedy is not so much that he is compelled to take life — his victims may deserve what they get — as that his strategy for expiation doesn’t work. But if he is left with even less, the motivation of revenge on top of rescue gives him a new lease on life. Hit men with emotional baggage have been around in crime fiction for a while. But for that kind of character, personal demons are mainly vocational impediments. Joe’s trauma-induced misanthropy is an operational asset. He is far less confused and far more resigned than, say, Travis Bickle.
Ames’s artfully nasty book stands as a stripped-down, witting tribute to fine genre crime writing, up the evolutionary chain from pulp fiction but rooted in its luridness. The deadpan rawness of his delivery recalls Jim Thompson’s work, the obtusely earnest description of emotional and physical violence Charles Willeford’s, the endemic corruption and sleaze George V. Higgins’s. Joe remembers his drunken, vindictive father “laughing, white spit in the corners of his mouth like battery acid.” The Parker novels of Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake’s) were a primary influence, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books, and latterly Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series secondary ones; Chandler and Hammett were vestigial inspirations.
The subject matter makes the book grim and frightening, and the plot is clever and original, while Ames’s verbal discipline calculatedly denies it the zingy uplift of his earlier fiction. These qualities must have attracted the singularly dark Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay, who optioned the book shortly after it was published. Although Ames did not co-write the screenplay, he exchanged notes with Ramsay on various drafts of the script, discussed the role of Joe with Joaquin Phoenix, and was frequently on set. He earned a credit as executive producer, emerging pleased with the film. Released in early 2018 following a triumphant screening at Cannes, Ramsay’s movie remains broadly faithful to Ames’s novella, and makes it an even sharper epochal metaphor that now includes a clear-eyed and unforgiving salvo of female empowerment. A cinematic minimalist, she provides no exposition, immediately thrusting the audience into Joe’s lethal activities, always from his point of view. Only fragmentary flashbacks to Joe’s abusive childhood and the horribly errant FBI operation that haunts him provide any backstory. Phoenix — beefy, scarred, and full-bearded, in baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a Carhartt vest — lends Joe his signature twitchy, quiet sadness and intensity.
It might be tempting to rate Ames an enterprisingly laddish gadfly who got lucky in the screen trade. Last March, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, he held forth about the frisson of inadvertently petting the sheath of his dog’s penis, which made him feel “risqué and louche and outré, all things French.” But Blunt Talk, the 2015–’16 Starz television series he created about a rakish cable news personality flamboyantly played by Patrick Stewart, was inspired by Network, and confirmed Ames’s dedicated preoccupation with a troubled world of hypocrites. It’s a strong bet that his flirtation with crime fiction will yield deeper contemplations of the self-destructive man that transcend his earlier ruminations.
I Pass Like Night and You Were Never Really Here, which bookend Ames’s long period of lighthearted self-deprecation, both concern self-destructive men, and both titles refer to a kind of disappearing. From the outrageous New York Press columns to the fledgling noir fiction, prurience and lustful impropriety pervade his writing. In The Extra Man, Ames foreshadows Joe’s rescue of Lisa from soulless pedophiles with a scene in which mischievous adolescent boys are chasing a schoolgirl whom Louis protects by giving her a piggyback ride. This jocular scene doesn’t involve the doomsday angst of You Were Never Really Here. But when Louis touches the girl’s thigh to steady her on his shoulders, he allows himself “a moment of illicit joy.” This connects to a scene in the movie where Nina apprehends Joe as merely the next sick bastard in line, offering herself to him. He gently spurns her, yet the nascent friendship and power shift that arises between them holds out the possibility of earned intimacy. The sequel will reportedly amplify the squalid moral landscape that Joe beholds, so we’ll see whether her empowerment comes to redeem him somehow. Ames, armed with abundant candor and talent, certainly isn’t afraid to go there and other dark places.
Jonathan Stevenson is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading international relations think tank, and is writing a biography of CIA turncoat Philip Agee.