There are days when the sun shines with such benign intensity that it seems as if nothing bad can happen. When you are walking down the street, imagination flies and you become the main character in your own movie; imaginary dialogues that would almost deserve to be written down just as they are made up in our heads; and life, in spite of its roughness and inherently tragic quality, seems merely an adventure. This wonderful feeling of unworried boldness, arrogance even, and at the same time of immunity before the danger of truth and annoying pain, is one of the main virtues of the British comedy of P.G. Wodehouse, one of the most definite mentors of comedian Jonathan Ames.
If you haven’t read his novels or been to one of his performances, maybe you have watched Bored to Death and might understand better what I am talking about. The sun burning over Brooklyn’s trees and a detective who plunges into an adventure after having lunch with white wine… on a Tuesday? You know what you are looking for in a Jonathan Ames’ novel, and the best part is that you find it. Written in 1998, The Extra Man is a pleasant farce (heir to Wodehouse, as mentioned before, and especially his Jeeves stories, which Ames would later explicitly pay tribute to in Wake Up Sir!) combined with a passion the author can’t hide for courtly romances (especially Don Quixote). The novel is built from a pseudo-existential point of view – or at least full of personal references – but as we find in Shalom Auslander, it can be extrapolated to any Jew or person who has received an overly dogmatic religious education regarding sex and the feeling of guilt.
This is the story of Louis Ives’, a teacher who is fired from his job after being caught smelling a bra that a colleague had forgotten in the staff room, and how he tries to start over from scratch, with a playwright in his seventies by his side, who’s never had a lot of success and who barely manages to live in his New York apartment; Henry, an escort of wealthy big shots who pretends to live like a gentleman but who in truth doesn’t have a penny and becomes Louis’ mentor; a stimulating mentor who Louis will follow just like Sancho did with the nobleman from La Mancha. With the same love and unconditional loyalty. Getting on the same wavelength. Meanwhile young Louis also tries to clarify the reason for his odd tendency to dress up as a woman, which leads him to an eccentric adventure in transvestite bars and madames’ apartments. Ames has written a good, fun and benign novel that places him in the tradition of comedy, or tragicomedy, typically American and Jewish, which saw the light with Saul Bellow, and which has found in Woody Allen and Larry David two noble (although different) followers.