Saturday, March 11, 2006

Type Cast 8

Counter to popular opinion, you can indeed tell a book by its cover – in fact, it’s really the best way to make decisions about books. I always check for raised type on paperbacks, because raised type – or, better yet, a peek-a-boo cut out – tells me that I am in for a quick, blissfully un-taxing read, and that there is a strong possibility that said book will contain scenes with demons, vampires, or werewolves. The taller the type, the higher the monster quotient.

However, since I started this column I’ve learned that what you can’t tell from a book is practically anything at all about the personality of the author. I’ve read terribly serious books and expected the authors to be as solemn and unsmiling as judges, or Michael Ignatieff, and then discovered that the gloom peddlers are back-slapping, good time party hounds. Conversely, I’ve read goofy books about silly subjects and then found myself on the phone with authors who could give Poe a run for his black crepe and crypts. Authors are as unpredictable as newly elected Liberals, minus the chauffeurs and hair cut allowance.

Case in point: the American humourist, performance artist, novelist and part time pugilist Jonathan Ames – a man, at least on the page, who has more demented fun than Gary Glitter at Toys ‘R Us. Racing through Ames’s latest book, I Love You More Than You Know - a brisk, laugh-out-loud funny collection of essays chronicling Ames’s sexual, spiritual, and, um, genital misadventures - I imagined that interviewing Mr. Wild And Crazy would be like trying to hog tie a racoon. I even did finger warm ups before I called his New York City home, figuring I’d have to type fast and hard just to keep up.

Instead, I found Ames to be a careful speaker who chooses his words deliberately, and a man more than a little inclined to take his time with a question. Perhaps the fact that I shamelessly flirted with him via email (he’s a foxy number, and mostly straight, which only goads me on) made him feel cautious toward me. I can be very seductive, as long as I am not visible. Or perhaps he was just sleepy. Or perhaps he was bored. I’ll never know for sure, and hopefully won’t find out in his next collection of essays. I can just imagine the title: Fat Canadians Talk Too Much.

At any rate, Ames was hardly the ribald raconteur one would expect from reading his work, and that lead me to try to uncover the man behind the monkey, the Mickey behind the Pluto, the middle aged father of a twenty-something son behind the gonzo, tranny-chasing, celebrity barroom brawler and boulevardier of Brooklyn.

The first thing one notices about Ames’s writing is his skilful conflation of blunt potty mouth humour and an overtly sentimental, Erma Bombeck-ish devotion to all things domestic and familial. How does he pull off this balancing act?

“Well, I guess I blend them by being up front and honest – and the mix makes them more interesting . If the moment calls for it, the both sides of my life, the ridiculous and the human, just go on the page . But there’s no scheme, I usually write my essays the night before they are due, so maybe it’s just panic and confusion. But, you know, ultimately it’s just storytelling.”

Ok, so he’s no Joan Didion, not a writer overly concerned with the intricacies of his art. There goes his creative writing gig at Columbia. But let’s find out about the action man side of Ames. What on earth drives him to get into so much trouble on a regular basis? Is he self destructive, or just on the hunt for good material?

“I do go into my Perils of Pauline moments, but I don’t intentionally try to get into trouble. Honestly. I do like the strange things in life, I’m drawn to them - but I’m not necessarily entering into “crazy situations” just because I’m looking for something to write about. It’s just that I seem to have an inner magnet for crazy things.”

So far, so mild. And mild-mannered – Ames speaks at a glacial pace, and politely pauses between thoughts to allow me to catch up. I begin to suspect that he’s scribbling out a thank you note, on embossed stationary. Where’s the sexy rebel, the bad boy whose muscle-man boxing photos I’ve been ogling on the internet?

One more try: I suspect Ames’s reputation as a super freak has garnered him a devoted following among frat boys and bookish jocks, that he’s a hero to young men seeking lurid adventures. Wrong again.

“I’m not sure who my audience is, but I suspect lately that I’m writing for women. I’ve had a few young male writers come up to me, but the people who write letters to me are mostly women. I don’t see myself as a kind of “guy writer”, or any brand of writer. And looking at oneself in those categories is kind of like staring in the mirror and wondering who you are – I don’t really do that, I just want to entertain the reader. I do want to push certain boundaries and not be limited to a certain audience, and I’m not really marketed to a specific audience.”

Now I’m getting jealous. Not only is Ames not giving me any Norman Mailer attitude, he’s actually rather likeable - a humble, misunderstood chic-lit author who just happens to be trapped in the body of a prize fighter. The ultimate literary cross-over, Ames is a marketer’s sticky dream. Why do I even get out of bed?