The Tough Poetry of Noir: A Conversation with Jonathan Ames

April 30, 2021   •   By David Breithaupt

WHAT IS IT ABOUT a mystery novel that takes us out of ourselves? Is it the imagining of a life more troubled than our own or the thrill we get from keeping a safe distance from murder and mayhem? Perhaps it is simply the allure of the story, the desire to know whodunnit. Whatever the lure, it attracted Jonathan Ames for years: from his youth, he had a yearning to be a gumshoe peeping through keyholes, perhaps while on a mission for some dame with a cheating husband. Ames’s acclaimed HBO series, Bored to Death (2009–’11), starring Jason Schwartzman as a wannabe detective and Ted Danson as his muse, exemplified this dream, which now continues with Ames’s new novel, A Man Named Doll.

Ames’s Happy Doll is the latest private eye to join an errant parade of crime-solvers. He’s an ex-cop who moonlights working security at a massage parlor and lives with a small mixed-breed dog beneath the famed Hollywood sign. It’s a fairly calm existence, but things perk up when a late-night patron at the parlor begins to tweak and becomes violent. Doll takes a beating, and things get worse when a friend from his LAPD days shows up with a bullet in his gut, leaving a story for Doll to unravel. So much for the quiet life. Before you know it, Doll has landed in the middle of an organ-stealing scam perpetrated by a mad doctor. What more could you ask for? Just sit back and enjoy the ride. And if you’ve ever read Jonathan Ames before, you know the ride will be good.

Ames’s résumé is lengthy. One of his later books, You Were Never Really Here (2013), was made into a movie starring Joaquin Phoenix. In the late ’90s, he wrote a column for the New York Press, and his show Blunt Talk ran for two seasons on Starz in 2015–’16. Add to that a long list of books, not to mention occasional appearances in the boxing ring as “The Herring Wonder,” and you have a very full career. Somehow, he had time to fit in this interview.

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DAVID BREITHAUPT: I was glad to see you dipping back into the noir genre. What drew you back to the field? 

JONATHAN AMES: Well, I guess I don’t feel like I have actually left. After You Were Never Really Here, all I’ve really wanted to write is my version of noir, which will also, I hope, include a certain amount of light, like sunlight at the bottom of a window shade. And since this is the genre I want to write in, A Man Named Doll is, I hope, the first in a series. The second book, if all goes according to plan — but what does? — will come out in 2022, and that one is titled The Wheel of Doll.

To answer your question in a general way about the noir genre and why I’m interested: since the late ’80s, when I was first introduced to the novels of Raymond Chandler, I have been very much in love with the detective novel. But it wasn’t what I read exclusively. But then something shifted in my reading habits around 2010 and all I began to consume — or at least 90 percent — was what you would call crime fiction or detective novels. It started when someone — the comedian Jeff Garlin! Thank you, Mr. Garlin! — told me that I should read Richard Stark and that reading him would change my life, which is a funny thing to say about an author of crime fiction. But reading Stark did change my life! (And for those reading this interview who may not have heard of Stark: he was one of the pen names of the prolific Donald E. Westlake, who wrote 28 crimes novels under the Stark byline, most famously the Parker series.)

Now, normally a book that changes your life is written by the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron or someone like that, and I have had life-changing experiences from those sorts of books as well, but Stark changed my life because I really wanted to write like him. I wanted to create the effect that he created in me — a compulsive desire to turn the page. Writers, generally, write the kinds of books they like to read, and so that’s why I’m drawn to writing — for the time being anyway — what might be called noir. But like I said, I also want there to be light. I want my noir with a dash of lumière.

That’s an interesting thought about Stark. Would you say content and style are more closely wedded in noir than in other genres?

I’m not very good, I think, at declaiming with firmness about such things. Feels like there’s always too much gray area or inconclusiveness or arguments to be made on both sides, at least when talking about literature or art. But I can offer observations.

So, let’s see. In the case of Stark, his lean, nail-gun, no-nonsense style fits very nicely with his hard-boiled subject matter. The writing itself is stark. But it’s not without life or vitality. There are wonderful depictions of characters and places, where the language is like tough poetry. And, as I mentioned above, the style works well with his content in that it’s brisk, you want desperately to turn the page, and so it’s literally thrilling. Maybe that’s because the lean style is great for depicting, with urgency, a sense of mission, specifically Parker’s mission and the coldly methodical way he goes about achieving his objectives. And those methods of course include improvisation as unforeseen obstacles present themselves, but then we can see his survivalist mind working quickly, brutally.

Parker’s mission is usually to deal with the problems of a heist gone sour, with the clock ticking because bad things will happen, or rather bad things will get worse; he has to evade capture and death or save his woman or simply get his money back, and so the writing can be like police-report writing or a crime blotter in a newspaper: to the point, no fooling around. Which is a style that Dashiell Hammett, who wrote reports as a Pinkerton agent, might have originated. Hammett started publishing around the same time as Hemingway, and he might have been influenced by Hemingway, but I would bet that he was more influenced by the reports he had to write as a Pinkerton.

Back to Stark: besides the lean, crisp, nail-gun-and-rivets style, there’s this intelligence and psychological insight behind the writing that also keeps you turning the page. What brilliant thing will he say next about the workings of one of his character’s minds? These gems crop up every few pages, and you hunt for them like gold.

But not all noir books or crime books have great style. Some of them are written without a lot of charm — at least to my ear — but the plotting is so good that you read on and the style is serviceable enough. In the case of Raymond Chandler, it seems like the style was more important than the content. And what is meant by content anyway? In the case of Chandler — a mystery story? Or the morality behind Marlowe’s worldview? And in that case, one could argue that the style served the content, if we’re talking about his occasional moralizing. He would comment on the imbalance of the world, how the strong were always crushing the weak, and how you tried to stand up to it if you could, but the game was always stacked against you. But this moralizing was slipped in in such a way that it was medicine you liked to take. The thing about Chandler was that the style was everything. You read him for the prose more than the story. At least I do. Though the stories were also fun.

Anyway, all this is to say that I don’t know if style is more wedded to content in noir. Recently, I broke from my steady diet of reading mystery novels and started Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018), and the style was magnificent. It was like God talking or the Earth talking, which fit the content, since he was trying to get at the big things: the impermanence of life, the interconnection of everything — birth, death, loss, beauty … So, there was a case where style and content were very much wedded in something that wasn’t noir, and I cried reading the first chapter.

And one last thought: Dashiell Hammett’s prose was also fantastic. Like Stark’s, it was tough poetry that occasionally would explode with florid beauty, just even the way he might describe a necktie. And the style of Chandler is just crazy beautiful and funny. People say his plots don’t always make sense, but I think they do. A later master of the whodunnit was Ross Macdonald: in his books, you go nuts trying to figure out ahead of time who the culprit is, especially because Macdonald loads his plots with lots of potential suspects, which I love.

I used to correspond with Mickey Spillane, and his letters read like one of his novels. I think he became his style in real life. Is there a chance you will become Happy Doll?

I would love to read some of your correspondence with Spillane! What were you two going back and forth about? I actually haven’t read Mickey Spillane, but what a figure he was — I just read his Wikipedia page!!! I remember him in beer commercials. And he played his own private eye in a movie or two, I believe.

And I never considered this — because I wasn’t so consciously aware of Spillane’s career at the time, I mean I knew the name but that was it, that he was a famous mystery writer — and so it must have been an unconscious influence at the time, but I obviously did something very similar in my TV show Bored to Death where the sleuth had my name and was a version of me. Oh, it’s all so convoluted: one’s life, what one makes, the deeply embedded unconscious cultural influences …

As for Spillane becoming his style. Maybe he was his style all along.

And will I become Happy Doll? F. Scott Fitzgerald had some sort of quote where he thought of all his protagonists as his brothers. There was his good brother and his bad brother and his lost brother, something like that. And early on in my writing career, I often said that my narrators or protagonists were versions of me, like first or second cousins, that we shared a lot of DNA. And the same is true of Doll — there’s a lot of me in him, but he’s also different and I try to remember that as I write in his voice in the next installment in the series. I have to remember that he’s had different life experiences than me and so on. And, of course, on some level he’s a wish-fulfillment figure for me. He gets to do things I could never do: he’s brave and has adventures, and he risks his own life to help people.

So, your question was: Will I become Happy Doll? No. I won’t. He’s out there in the world, getting his hands dirty, and I’m in my room pretending to be him, keeping my hands clean, more or less, since I’m not the neatest housekeeper.

To answer your question about my correspondence with Spillane, I wrote to him asking if he’d ever heard of a mystery writer named Delano Ames who was born in my hometown of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, in 1906. Spillane said he “doesn’t bother with those out-of-print guys” which cracked me up. He also referred to his typewriter as “the money machine.” Your private-eye hero Happy Doll is such a great character, and I’m glad you’re going to make a series with him. Do you ever solve any of your personal dilemmas by creating and writing about an alter-ego character?

What an interesting coincidence: that you were corresponding with Spillane about a writer named Ames, and subsequently in other emails, not represented here, you’ve told me a bit about this Delano, and he sounds fascinating, as does your interest in him. I hope you write something about him sooner rather than later …

So, to answer your question: I don’t consciously write fiction to solve my problems, though writing fiction may help me with the process of problem-solving, just as dreams do. There’s also that quote from Freud, something about all writing being confession. So, there’s that need — the need to confess — that can get unconsciously or perhaps consciously expressed through the act of writing. And then there’s the important wish to observe, to witness; to honor the beauty and strangeness of life. Along with the wish to make things — to create. Making things gives us (me) a sense of purpose. All of this can help solve problems, I imagine.

If you had to pick a mystery writer, living or dead, who might have written the story line for the last four years, who would it be?

It seems like Stephen King has written quite a few books that mirror the last four years. His 1978 novel The Stand, which I haven’t read in a long time, is about a global pandemic and could have been written in response to 2017–’21. And I never read the book that was adapted into the film The Dead Zone, but that film felt eerily prescient …

I go through periods of marathon mystery reading — Highsmith, Chandler, Sayers, and so on — and I’m not sure if it affirms or refutes my faith in humanity. What do you take away from reading mysteries?

Old-fashioned catharsis, I think. When the protagonist is in danger, I feel in danger, my heart races … And that’s supposed to be healthy, right — to experience catharsis, which is a kind of empathy, that’s good for us humans. We need to feel. To not be numb. And art helps with that, it stirs us up, uses our minds and bodies like chimneys.

And here’s a cliché: life is a confusing mystery. So, I root for the detective to figure things out just as I want to figure things out. When we see Hamlet die, we are meant — if we believe in the power of catharsis, the power of art — to acknowledge that we too will die and so we need to come to terms with things before this happens or we will suffer like Hamlet.

I think the catharsis I get from detective novels is tied up in the question: Will I solve the mystery of my life before it’s too late? Though the answer is: Probably not … So maybe detective novels are falsely optimistic? Nothing gets solved in real life. There are no answers. Though that’s an answer in and of itself. The journey is the destination. The riddle to life is to be present in the now. The Tao of the Now! Okay, I’m going off the track here.

What I also get from mystery novels is old-fashioned distraction: I get caught up in the whodunnit and I’m entertained. I let go of this world and its troubles and my own troubles for a little while, except unconsciously — as I just argued above — I’m experiencing catharsis, which is a form of reassurance: I’m not alone in wanting to figure things out and I have these great role models, these detectives who never give up!

As far as the faith (or lack of it) in humanity that you allude to above: well, in detective novels, there is the heroic, selfless instinct at play, and that’s reassuring about humanity. Which is another thing I get from these sorts of books: the detective wants to do the right thing! She or he wants to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, and I find that inspiring. Stark’s Parker doesn’t want to help people, but the books themselves in which he appears — well-crafted things, entertainments — are reassuring about humanity. It’s reassuring to realize that someone made this book I hold, spent time writing these sentences. In the Stark novels, for example, you also get these insights into people, and even if the insights are dark, the wisdom of being able to depict them is inspiring.

In general, I don’t enjoy books that are overly cynical and despairing about human beings, which is maybe why I didn’t keep going with Highsmith’s Ripley novels, though I admired the first one very much. Ultimately, I like books with heroes, and I need to believe in humanity, which sounds weird as a fan of Stark and his creation Parker. But Parker was heroic, especially when it came to his wife. And he lived by a code, kind of like a criminal samurai, and that sort of discipline is inspiring about humanity. And you could even say that Parker was loyal and just. Which is also affirming about humanity. Anyway …

Will Happy Doll be an HBO series someday?

I don’t think so. Though one never knows, and there’s a movie thing afoot, but these things are always long shots.

What writer would you choose to write the screenplay for the next four years?

A screenplay co-written by Greta Thunberg and the Dalai Lama would be a movie and a reality I’d like to see. Where somehow the whole world, at once, like some great leap in evolution and consciousness, grasps the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, and self-destruction and self-hatred, which are also expressed as hatred of the other, are eliminated, and equanimity and peace and kindness and love and compassion and wisdom rule the day.

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David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous BreakdownRumpusExquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.