Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Double Life is Twice as Good by Jonathan Ames Review


Jonathan Ames is a writer whose work is very up and down in terms of quality – on the one hand you’ve got fine, fun fiction like Bored to Death and on the other you have an overlong, uninteresting comic like The Alcoholic. The Double Life is very representative of Ames’ work with the essays and short stories collected here proving this dichotomy. 

The opening selection, Bored to Death, is really good. A bored novelist called Jonathan Ames posts an ad on Craigslist pretending to be an amateur, unlicensed private investigator and begins getting cases. Originally appearing in the literary journal McSweeney’s, this short story is also the basis for the HBO TV series Bored to Death starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson, which is a supergreat show, though this original fiction is a lot darker than the TV series – which I thought was a nice surprise actually. Generally though the fiction in this book is pretty poor stuff. His Diary of a Book Tour isn’t bad but the others tend to be just a couple of pages long and felt like it took as long to write as it did to read, they’re just so insubstantial. 

His non-fiction takes up most of this book and is definitely the highlight of this collection. His interview with Marilyn Manson was pretty great and once more showed MM to be a decent, down-to-earth chap who leads a pretty amazing life. Ames caught him in the aftermath of his divorce from Dita Von Teese and having just met Rachel Evan Wood with MM swooning over her – MM in love! Lovely. Ames even manages to drink MM under the table! His interview with Lenny Kravitz was similarly interesting – Kravitz seems like less of an interesting person but also seems like someone you could have a normal conversation with. And who knew he was celibate?! Another highlight included a trip to a Goth music festival as Ames tries to find out why people are drawn to Goth as a lifestyle choice. 

Unfortunately not all of the non-fiction stuff hits home. His review of the recently gentrified Meatpacking District in New York is ok for a few pages – but 27 pages? It’s too long. It also features his adult-adolescent friend Mangina (obviously not his real name) who wears a mangina and does improv theatrics. This isn’t the only essay where Mangina shows up and it’s clear Ames has a colourful social life, taking part in avant garde theatrics with his eccentric friends. I don’t have a problem with people like this but when you’re middle-aged and still acting like you’re 12, you can come across as somewhat tedious and twee rather than charming, which is how Mangina and Ames come across in these essays. 

Ames is an interesting fellow though. He talks about literally boxing fellow authors in PR stunts to promote their books. Ames does amateur boxing under the name The Herring Wonder, which is definitely interesting and follows Hemingway’s footsteps, who also boxed for a while, but Ames’ essay on his fighting career isn’t particularly compelling. He also includes lengthy excerpts of his diary from when he was in his early 20s which are extraordinarily self-indulgent and dull. He waffles on about how he’s in love with this woman and how she broke his heart and so on, and it’s such a worthless addition that it feels like it was included as padding to lengthen this rather slim volume to a more reasonable size instead of its quality or insight. 

Ames is a little too eager to reveal details of his sex life which can be a bit off-putting – the piece on going down on a woman in the dark whom he didn’t realise was a virgin, feeling moisture around his mouth and not realising until later that it was blood, is both a bit disgusting and funny. Then the numerous other essays that feature Ames going down on various other women just felt repetitive and that he was trying a little too hard to be shocking and hilarious, never really accomplishing either. 

I quite liked The Double Life because Ames is a talented writer so that even if the essay or piece you’re reading isn’t as engaging as others, it’s at least well written. And despite the misfires, when he’s on, he’s really great and the good parts make reading this worth it. Ames is kind of like David Sedaris’ deviant cousin whose books aren’t quite as good as Sedaris’ but contain some entertaining gems nonetheless. The Double Life is by no means essential reading but good for dipping in and out of while reading other books.

The Double Life Is Twice as Good

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