Interview with Dean Haspiel

For his most recent project, Jonathan Ames collaborated with friend and artist Dean Haspiel for The Alcoholic, a graphic novel in which a character named “Jonathan A.,” who bears more than a few physical and character similarities to Jonathan Ames, is depicted in various alcoholic, sexual, and relationship states. To clear up some of the many staggering questions which emerged during my reading of the graphic novel, I emailed Mr. Haspiel five unusual questions. Mr. Haspiel graciously consented to answer these queries. The results are posted here for the benefit of future scholars.

amesalc1Word on the street is that Mr. Ames wrote the bulk of his script at your place. To what degree did you indoctrinate Mr. Ames with comics? Did he come up with any of the paneling and art ideas (such as the frequent head splitting)? (I think of the mice snorting coke at the bar, which is something of a nod to Spiegelman.) Or, like your work with Harvey Pekar, did he defer most of this to you? Was Mr. Ames’s continued proximity to your drawing table of benefit to you in brainstorming ideas? Were there situations in which you would quickly sketch out an idea and Mr. Ames would run with it?

Jonathan has written screenplays and is familiar with writing for a visual medium and he wrote the entire script for The Alcoholic far away from my art table. The script he delivered had clear descriptions of what he wanted me to draw while allowing me the collaborative leeway to visually design and interpret portions of the story to befit my comic book sensibilities. To use your example, I designed the head splitting shots [a classic comix trope] while Jonathan wrote the snorting cocaine rats. Ultimately, The Alcoholic was a great collaboration between two like-minded auteurs who also happen to be great friends.

Jonathan A. shares striking physical similarities to Jonathan Ames. And this is also very evident in the artwork, where the parties and events you depict are 80-90% similar to their real-life counterparts. To what degree did you rely upon reference? And visually speaking, did you and Mr. Ames establish any specific ground rules on how this graphic novel blurred from the truth?

Cartooning is all about shortcuts and, like Dick Tracy’s Rogues Gallery where every villain looks like their name, it’s a cartoonists job to exaggerate features and with Jonathan, whom we based the protagonist’s likeness on, I was fortunate to have his aquiline nose and his receding hairline to define the characters “face.” And, since The Alcoholic spans the protagonists childhood to adulthood, I relied heavily on that nose. As for the rest of the supporting cast [except for Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky], I drew characters based on my studio mates and friends and/or actors that Jonathan suggested. Some of the sex scenes were fun to draw because I got my girlfriend to pose with me for the “sake of making art.”

There is one tragic moment on page 46, in which Jonathan A. falls asleep naked in a trash can. Did you persuade Mr. Ames to pose in any way for this? Or was it necessary to recruit another figure to recreate these sordid conditions? What lengths were you and Mr. Ames willing to go in the interests of verisimilitude?

I didn’t have the guts to ask Jonathan if this event actually happened to him and if he would pose for me. So, I asked my studio mate, Tim Hamilton, to pose for me and it was the best time he had in a garbage can in years. In general, I don’t use much photographic reference for the figures in my comix — I make most of it up. However, Jonathan furnished me with a bunch of photographs from his past to present and that helped me make iconic the lead character.

There are many instances in which the positioning of figures demonstrates developments over time. On Page 20, we see two panels: Jonathan A.’s girlfriend replaced by Jonathan A. himself, and young Jonathan replaced by the old woman. On Page 75, we see Jonathan A. in November 2000 and February 2001 waiting for San Francisco to call back. But not only has Jonathan A. sunken, but his drawer is slightly open, with socks and underwear sticking out. In changing the illustrative details ever so slightly, the panels are both static and slightly dynamic. Are slight changes along these lines what comics and graphic novels need to matter? To what extent was this a case of you wanting to shake things up so that you wouldn’t get bored drawing the same panels over and over?

Sometimes I draw action adventure [as seen in my Billy Dogma webcomix] and sometimes I draw semi-autobio situations [as seen in my Street Code webcomic and in my collaborations with Harvey Pekar]. Luckily, working with Jonathan, he made sure I would draw action to compliment the mundane. Because real-life yields less adventure than we’d probably like to admit, characters are often talking to each other in a room, on the street, and/or on the phone when they’re not escaping from horny geriatric dwarves or experiencing a diarrhea explosion in their pants on the streets of France. It’s the artists challenge to help contextualize action, no matter how mundane, and make it look damned interesting on the comic book page or the reader is left with a series of talking heads reacting to one another and that can get boring to look at.

On Page 120, there is a panel of Jonathan A. swimming that rather disturbingly resembles David Duchovny in Playing God. Mr. Duchovny, of course, is now known for his portrayal of a fucked up writer who drinks and sleeps with women on the Showtime television series, Californication. Rather interestingly, there are billboards now depicting Mr. Duchovny standing on the bottom of a swimming pool. And Mr. Ames has indeed worked with Showtime. I am now becoming slightly concerned that there is perhaps a conspiracy that currently involves Mr. Ames, Showtime, and Mr. Duchovny, and that you have perhaps unwittingly been ensnared within the plot. Are you aware of such a cabal? Did Mr. Ames brief you in any way about any connection? Did Showtime or Mr. Duchovny control your mind at any point?


Jonathan Ames Pilot on Showtime

Longtime readers know that many years ago, I opened an envelope in my mail that contained a hastily handwritten letter and a small, poorly Xeroxed photograph of Ed McMahon. Unlike other mysterious envelopes that came in the mail along these lines, I was not promised millions of dollars. Indeed, money was never one of the promised options — at least not immediately. But there was the promise of a mysterious potato salad recipe and guitar lessons. Both of these promised to be of a very special nature that would win me friends, further my career, and earn me more invites to BDSM parties than a teenager’s libido could possibly handle. The latter was a particularly ideal prospect, because, as the letter put it, the party invites would mean getting the opportunity to place many local political figures in sexually humiliating positions.

potatosalad.jpgFor all this to happen, all I’d have to do is meet a thin, cadaverous man at a crossroads and continue to mention any news involving Jonathan Ames on these pages. Well, I showed up at the crossroads in question. And the man never showed up. But being a man of my word, here is the latest piece of Jonathan Ames news.

A few years ago, Jonathan Ames did not meet a man at a crossroads and, to this very day, does not know how to make potato salad. But he did shoot a TV pilot called What’s Not to Love? And Showtime will at long last be airing this on Tuesday, December 18th at 11:30 PM, as well as on Showtime Showcase on December 19 at 1:25 AM and Showtime Too on December 20 at 4:30 AM and December 26 at 3:15 AM.

In other words, Showtime has decided that the ideal audience for Jonathan Ames’s pilot are speed freaks and insomniacs. So if you don’t have a sleeping problem or you’re not sitting on a Sudafed stockpile for ideal home brew, be sure to set your TiVo options if you have them!

Craig Davidson vs. Jonathan Ames

As regular readers know, back in the day, I made a deal with a man at a crossroads who pledged to give me a mysterious potato salad recipe (along with guitar lessons), if I would continue to reference the adventures of Jonathan Ames. Well, I’ve been doing this for quite a while. And there hasn’t been a potato salad recipe sent to my mailbox. So I thought that I would begin to take my involvement on the Ames reporting front to the next level.

Somehow, I’ve been coaxed by very pleasant people to be a part of the Craig Davison-Jonathan Ames “exhibition sparring event” (note the new terminology) that’s happening at Gleason’s Boxing Gym (83 Front Street) on Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 8:00 PM. (If you heard about this event before, please note the new venue. Apparently, an amateur boxing law prohibiting opponents who were more than ten years apart in age from fighting forced the event’s organizers to find a new venue.)

At the very least, I hope to offer a few between-rounds interviews with Davidson and Ames for a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show. (Mr. Ames and I have been trying to get a third Segundo interview set up for some months now.) But I may also be involved, in part, with emceeing this event. If this turns out to be the case, having never announced a boxing match before, I plan to dutifully study the history of past boxing announcers and give it my all. That’s the very least I can do under the circumstances. A lot of this, of course, depends upon the organizers and my recurrent laryngitis, which is not fully recovered but well on the way to being gone.

But don’t let my dubious participation stop you from attending what is surely one of the craziest literary publicity stunts seen in some time. Here are two writers who would willingly beat the shit out of each other to promote their names. Would you go that distance?

Here’s the flyer:


AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Ames et Manson

Jonathan Ames, favorite author of P.S. and writer of such novels as THE EXTRA MAN, I PASS LIKE NIGHT and WAKE UP, SIR!, plus three collections of comedic essays, has interviewed Marilyn Manson for the newest issue of Spin! There’s a preview available on Spin’s website, with the full article available only in print. A preview of the preview:

The door swings open and Manson lopes in, carrying his own goblet of absinthe. He’s wearing a black T-shirt, black leather pants, and gigantic Frankenstein boots. He’s six-foot-three and looks to be all narrow torso and legs. I’m middle-aged and completely bald and immediately assess that Manson’s black hair is beginning to thin, probably from multiple dyeings. [Patrick: This line is so Jonathan Ames.] His face is sweet, and his eyes, without his usual colored contacts, are kindly. [Patrick: As is this one.]

We start to talk, and Manson is sniffling a little. Right away, he starts to tell me about the breakup of his marriage to burlesque queen Dita Von Teese. They were together for six years and then, in their seventh year, they got married. “It’s the old cliché,” he says. “Marriage changes everything.”

The behavior he had manifested for the first six years — such as living like a vampire — became unacceptable to Von Teese, he says. But he wasn’t willing to give up his vampire’s hours. “I’m my most creative between 3 and 5 A.M.,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always been.”

Going to sleep at dawn and rising at dusk was not the only issue of contention, though. Before they were wed, Manson and Von Teese were never separated for more than five days; after they got married, he wasn’t seeing her three out of every four weeks, due to her own hectic schedule. Manson is very needy, and with Von Teese on the road all the time, he started losing his mind. And he started believing her when she said that the way he lived was wrong.

It’s funny. Marilyn Manson is, if this article depicts him accurately, a very Amesian character. [Via Tiger Beat]

Jonathan Ames Alert

A few years ago, I flew to Kansas, enduring a sweltering September afternoon. I stood at a crossroads, which I barely found, seeing as how the junction had been illegibly scrawled on a used sheet of butcher paper.

I had been sent to a mysterious location (this was long before Google Maps) because a man named Lenny had promised to personally deliver an egg salad recipe that was of great value to humanity. This egg salad recipe had been passed down through many generations and had made many people happy. And he had designated me, Edward Champion, as the man who could properly disseminate future reproductions of this egg salad to other people.

The only thing Lenny asked of me was to arrive at the crossroads with $172.25 in quarters — all of them minted before 1970. Well, it took about five trips to the bank and a lengthy explanation to TSA. (This was shortly after 9/11. So people were jumpy.) But I did it.

Lenny never showed. But a horned man by the name of Luke did. He said that he would offer me the egg salad recipe in four years’ time, so long as I continued to mention Jonathan Ames’ ongoing developments on my website.

Well, it’s been more than four years. There’s still no egg salad recipe. But I’m a man of my word.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t refer you to Jonathan Ames’ appearance at Jewcy this week. He’s blogging with Amanda Marcotte in epistolary format.

Jonathan Ames Alert

As regular readers know, several years ago, I made a deal with a demon at a crossroads. The demon informed me that his name was Anthony Robbins. The demon, who insisted that I call him Tony, hoped to introduce me to something called neuropsychotic programming. I informed the demon that no, I was simply looking for a good potato salad recipe, and had no desire to become a sociopathic maniac. It was the salad recipe that had inspired me to thumb my way across the country, suffering bad Denny’s meals and declining invitations to sip lemonade with white-robed men referred to as “Grand Wizards.”

The demon said, “Okay, tell you what. I’ll give you your salad recipe if you report all Jonathan Ames developments.”

“Jonathan Ames? Well, that’s easy. I like him. He’s a funny guy.”

“Do this for a year,” said the demon, “and I will give you your precious potato salad recipe.”

Well, as everyone who knows me knows, I’m a man of my word. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to this Jonathan Ames story in Nerve, which begins with the sentence, “She was a foreign journalist, assigned to interview me.”

Of course, I’ve been doing this for more than a year and the potato salad recipe has yet to turn up. But I’ve consulted an attorney to see if there’s an escape clause in the contract.

Let this be a lesson to all who encounter demons at crossroads.

Speculating Upon Gasps

Jonathan Ames: “On the oral-sex front, I then made a concerted effort to lick the labia, which was something I’ve been guilty of neglecting in the past, and again the results were quite good. I also plunged my middle digit in about two inches, counting off the distance with my finger along the inside of the young lady’s vagina the way you march out the steps between your car and a fire-hydrant. I may have actually located the G-spot, if I’m to judge by the gasps of pleasure that were elicited.”

Jonathan Ames Alert

Long-time readers know that I once made a deal with a daemon. An evil eidolen answering to the name of Bee promised that if I continuously reported Jonathan Ames’ activity, I would be given a great salad recipe that would allow me to win friends and influence people. The salad recipe has yet to materialize, but being a man who lives up to his end of the bargain, I would be remiss if I didn’t report that The Jonathan Ames Show is going down at Mo Pitkins on January 30 and January31 at 11:00 PM. Ames will be presenting a number of unusual acts, and Moby will make a surprise appearance on at least one of these nights. Ames also promises to have a pillow fight with audience members and will, in his words, “gently paddle audience members.” It is unknown whether the paddle in question will be one of the ping-pong variety or the English public school type. But this sounds to me like several Friday evenings in my twenties.

Ames Alert

Regular readers of this site know that I once made a deal with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. Mention everything that Jonathan Ames does on this site and I would instantly wake up with a six-figure sum in my savings account. The stranger didn’t say how or when this money would appear and, as of today, it hasn’t. I’m quite surprised. The stranger certainly seemed sincere to me. He even took several dollar bills out of my wallet for “insurance purposes.”

But I am a man of my word. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Ames is busy indeed with two shows at Mo Pitkin’s: November 28th and November 29th. Ames will be showing the unaired pilot for What’s Not to Love?

Jonathan Ames at The Moth

Loyal Reluctant readers know that at some time in the past, I made a deal with a blues guitarist at a crossroads. The guitarist, who claimed that he was rather “beezled” (I’m still not sure what this verb means; perhaps it’s French), told me that I would learn the recipe for a particularly tasty potato salad under one condition: that I must mention everything that Jonathan Ames is up to.

I’m still waiting for the recipe, but I’m a man of my word. So it behooves me to point out that Mr. Ames will be part of The Moth storytelling series, along with several other people. The details are as follows:

Los Angeles
Thursday, October 12, 8:00 PM
At UCLA Live/Royce Hall

Sunday, October 15th, 7:30 PM ($12)
Town Hall

San Francisco
Thursday, October 19th, 8:00 PM ($21)
Great American Music Hall

Thursday, October 22nd, 7:30 pm ($20)
Newman Center for the Performing Arts

I am unsure why San Francisco is the most expensive city on the list and why the literary community of Seattle gets a much cheaper ticket price, but I am sure there are significant scientific reasons behind all of this that only the man at the crossroads will know.

I’m still waiting for the potato salad recipe.

Jonathan Ames Alert

Several years ago, I made a deal at a rustic crossroads. A man, clad only in a red velveteen suit, told me that good things would happen under the following proviso: Mention anything Jonathan Ames is involved in and I might — just might — learn how to play decent bluegrass guitar. To this day, my bluegrass skills are shaky at best, although I can play a mean pentatonic riff if you ply me with enough liquor. But I am a man of my word and I still retain some dim hope that I’ll wake up from a scandalous dream involving a few topless librarians with the abilities to outplay Jerry Reed, only to cast aside my Taylor unexpectedly to play second banana to Burt Reynolds in a series of marginal cinematic comedies.

While things have been quiet on the Ames front of late, I’m pleased to report that they haven’t been flatline. A new outlet called The L Magazine has seen fit to publish a Jonathan Ames story called “A Walk Home,” and it involves, of all things, the Gowanus Canal.

75 Books: Books #12-32

Okay, I have a tremendous backlog on write-ups. Pardon me if my thoughts are ocassionally rushed here, but the only way to get this out of the way and kill the backlog is to type like mad.

Book #12 was Eliott Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. What we have here is a mammoth social novel in the Corrections/Bonfire of the Vanities/An American Tragedy tradition: a book that dares to make broad and often dead wrong generalizations in an effort to better understand human behavior.

The novel follows a troubled (well, let’s face the facts, batshit crazy) and unemployed teacher named Simon, who can’t seem to get over Anna, the girl who dumped him back in his college days. Simon thinks he’s some kind of misunderstood genius and somehow manages to coax a prostitute named Angelique, a psychiatrist and many other unexpected figures into his life. He kidnaps Anna’s son. And we hear this tale from his and many other points of view. What’s amazing is how the supporting characters are all taken in by Simon’s efforts to bring them down.

Now I know that I’m making this sound as if I hated the book. In fact, describing it makes the story sound implausible. But this isn’t exactly the case. It takes brass balls to pursue seven disparate narratives, particularly a few that I don’t think Perlman doesn’t entirely ken (that would be most of the female characters).

Somehow though, despite Perlman’s inconsistencies, you have to give him points on earnestness, a literary commodity that isn’t really valued in these hard realist times. This is a novel that starts with a bang, and it is, particularly with its business dealings, quite effective at gripping the reader, particularly during its corporate retreat chapter, which reads almost like an Elkinesque satire. There’s also something quite absurdist in making all the characters so miserable and out-of-touch with their surroundings. And I suspect that the book would have succeeded more with me had Perlman not been quite so intense about it. Perlman can’t quite decide whether he wants to fling them into their miserable fates. He likes these characters too much, but he also wants to write a Serious Novel here, which works against what I think he’s going for. Part of the fun was trying to figure out if I could really trust the perspectives, but also seeing if Perlman had the guts to pursue his own ambiguous feelings about greed, deceit, and betrayal. To some extent, he does. To some extent, he doesn’t.

At times, however, the book’s present tense voice is its own worst enemy, resulting in such preposterous passages as this:

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. (80)

And there are other moments that might have allowed Perlman to be longlisted for the Bad Sex Award:

He slid my skirt down to my ankles and made me sing as if I’d never sung before and I kept on singing, amazing myself.

But (and this is the key thing) if you can forgive a mammoth book for this kind of sloppy exposition (complete with forced alliteration, the absurd one-two punch and the “kill him”/”killing him,” which seems pulled from a dimebag crime novel gone horribly awry) and you can proceed onward, and if you’re the kind of person who is willing to give this kind of social novel a chance, then I think you’ll be able to boogie with Perlman as much as I did.

Book #13 was David Kipen’s The Schreiber Therory. I’m happy to report that Mr. Kipen is just as exuberant on page as he is in person. Kipen makes the case for screenwriters, pointing out that “American film history may currently be entering its third act” and that the time has come to recognize these scribes for their contributions. For some of the writers Kipen proffers, I don’t entirely buy Kipen’s argument (Robert Towne’s Personal Best, anyone?), but Kipen is irresistably perfervid and quite right to puncture holes into the auteur theory, which has, among other things, been one of the reasons why incompetents such as Uwe Boll, Stephen Sommers and Michael Bay have inexplicably remained gainfully employed. (I also got a chance to talk with Kipen on the fly at last year’s BEA. You can hear the podcast here.)

Book #14 was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. I’m going to confess something to you readers. I hadn’t read a single word of Barnes before this book. Barnes was one of those authors I had intended to read, but I never got around to perusing. What pushed me over the edge was the possibility of interviewing him. So there was, alas, some solipsism involved, I’m ashamed to confess. The opportunity never arose. But I’m very glad I read Flaubert’s Parrot and I’ll certainly be reading more of him in the near future.

I’m tempted to make an all-too-easy comparison between Barnes and Martin Amis. For like Amis, Barnes has a rather droll style steeped in erudition and a dry English sense of humor. But where Amis sometimes asphyxiates the reader with the troubling sense that he has some autodidacticism to prove (see London Fields), Barnes comes across as a far more playful and subversive novelist.

Flaubert’s Parrot is fantastic in the way it flip-flops between exegeses and the neuorses of one Geoffrey Braithwaite, a doctor and amateur scholar obsessed with Flaubert. One of the standout chapters is “Emma Bovary’s Eyes,” in which the good doctor rails against critics and academics who get details wrong, and whether such details matter. Barnes does a very crafty thing here in exposing that gray area between amateur and professional. Yes, even professionals can make mistakes. But like any trusted novelist, Barnes suggests that the mistakes reveal truths about the human character in a manner that recalls a more ambiguous take on Pale Fire. And is the good doctor making a mistake by devoting so much of his spare time with his primary obsession?

Book #15 was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m a huge fan of The Sandman and I did enjoy Neverwhere, my only other trip into Gaiman prose territory. And I had obtained a copy of American Gods upon its paperback release. But I didn’t really want to read it because of all the hype that had surrounded the title. It seemed that everybody and his mother was gushing about how good this book was. And when that happens, if I haven’t read the book before the manic plaudits, I generally set the book aside and wait for the hoopla to die down so I can judge a book on its own merits. It may be overly paranoid on my part, but it’s the only way I can keep honest.

I’m sorry to say that I was a bit disappointed in American Gods. Yes, there is a good deal of invention. Gaiman is, as anyone knows, an idea man — one of the best in the biz. But I felt, in this case, that Gaiman’s conceptualizing got in the way of heart. Sure, it was a good yarn. Stephen King was obviously a huge influence here, both with the plain prose laden with references (in Gaiman’s case, more mythological, a la Barth’s Chimera, rather than pop cultural) and the idea of a man seeking redemption through a mammoth quest tale. But I felt that his States-centric dialogue was too British to my ears: frequently stiff, gerund-happy in the wrong ways and littered with cornball humor that seemed to exist to placate a readership rather than take chances. The novel seems to percolate every time Wednesday shows up, but something of Shadow’s pain gets lost along the way. But I will be checking out Anansi Boys.

Book #16 was Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. I’ve had a few complaints about Vowell’s recent work, only some of which apply here. This book was enjoyable, but a bit too mainstream for my tastes. I get the sense that there’s a more abrasive voice behind the Vowell persona, more so than she’s willing to impart to the page. And I’m curious if she’ll ever reveal this.

Book #17 was Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation. I greatly enjoyed Divided Kingdom when I read it last year as part of the Litblog Co-Op. And I also enjoyed the conversation I had with Thomson. So I figured I’d give another book of his a shot. To my considerable astonishment, The Book of Revelation is an almost perfect novel — a tale of pain, remorse, guilt and individualism that I can recommend to you in the strongest possible terms. Why Rupert Thomson is not more of a household name remains a mystery. I’ll say this much. The Book of Revelation catapaulted Thomson into the list of Authors to Buy New Book on Sight. And I will be checking out his complete backist.

The tale, like Divided Kingdom, sounds just as outlandish, but it is Thomson’s great skill as a novelist that he gets you to believe in it. A dancer, out to buy his girlfriend a pack of smokes, is kidnapped by a group of three women. He is humiliated and forced to perform all sorts of horrible sexual favors. And I’ll say no more. Thomson writes straight from the gut and he pulls no punches. His imagery is stark and brutal, but also warm and humane in very unexpected ways.

Book #18 was Jonathan Ames’ My Less Than Secret Life, which I reread just before talking with Jonathan for his second appearance on The Bat Segundo Show.

Book #19 was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I decided to reread this because I kept running into references to this book in various books and articles I was reading. And when that happens, it’s a sign to pull out the tattered paperback. I first read Heart when I was 19. This time around, I felt much more sympathy for Scobie and took greater delight in Greene’s use of colons. I’d say something substantial, but it’s now approaching bedtime and I have to get to Book #32 before I hit the hay.

Books #20 and 21 were books pertaining to a future Segundo guest.

Book #22 was Keith Johnstone’s Impro, a reread, but mandatory for an improv class I finished up a few weeks ago. The text was just as turgid the first time I read this, but there were, like the last time, some good associative ideas that helped me get rid of the troubling logician in me that often manifests itself in improv performance. This time around, with some of Johnstone’s ideas coated in my lobes, I was better able to trust my instincts every time I went up to do some improv. And for this, I have to thank Mr. Johnstone.

Book #23 was Eric Larsen’s A Nation Gone Blind: American in an Age of Simplification and Deceit. And I don’t think I’ll read a more bitter and generalization-happy writer this year. Why I finished this book is a mystery. I suspect I was fascinated by how miserable and humorless Larsen is, a state of mind outside my m.o. that I really can’t fathom. He believes that America has shifted into an “Age of Simplification,” in effect since 1947. He regularly complains about his miserable life as a teacher and the miserable students. At least when Jean-Paul Sarte bitched and moaned like this, he had something to say, not scores to settle.

Book #24 was an LBC nominee that I cannot reveal.

Book #25 was Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document — a wonderful book, which I raved about here.

Book #26 was Dana Spiotta’s Lightning Field. Also very good.

Book #27 was a book relating to an upcoming Segundo guest.

Book #28 was William T. Vollmann’s Expelled from Eden. I’ll write about this later and tie it into my long delayed Europe Central post.

Book #29 was William T. Vollmann’s Uncentering the Earth. I’ll write about this later and tie it into my long delayed Europe Central post. But you can find some of my thoughts about this book in my lengthy Vollmann account.

Books #30 & #31 were LBC nominees that I cannot reveal.

Book #32 was a book relating to an upcoming Segundo guest.

And I think that wraps it up. Time to collapse.


The Bat Segundo Show #25


Author: Jonathan Ames

Condition of Bat Segundo: Too easily complaisant to charlatan announcers.

Subjects Discussed: The controversial cover of I Love You More Than You Know, self-promotional footnotes, rules for writing, writing originating from unexpected requests, “tossed off” essays, depression and writing, essays which involve the penis, the somber and introspective feel of Ames’ latest collection, Ames’ lengthy self-asseessment of his book, George Plimpton, Glenn Gould, honesty, “throwaway pieces,” graphic novels, fiction, making a living as a writer, Graham Greene, Dean Haspiel and The Alcoholic, comic book scripting, Neil Gaiman, The Extra Man screenplay, upcoming pieces in GQ and Spin, on Ames letting down his guard, comedy vs. tragedy, the audience response to “Midlife Assessment,” Tim O’Brien, an odd and paranoid use of coffee, Ames’ place as a writer, the financial realities of being a writer, Moby, on getting distracted, the burden of email, writing discpline, chicken soup, San Francisco restaurants, Anthony Trollope, Jonathan Lethem, writers named Jonathan, Jonathan Franzen, living life to write about it later, on Ames bringing pleasure to himself (not the way you’re thinking), what Ames has been collecting from hotel rooms, and a hairy call.


  • Another day, another Robert Birnbaum interview. This time: Uzodinma Iweala.
  • Concerning the Jonathan Ames testicle controversy, it seems that the testicle is ahead of the shadow by a ratio of 5 to 1. Whether this will have any long-term impact on future perceptions of Jonathan Ames books remains to be seen, but there’s a rumor floating around that Augusten Burroughs has been considering “an accidental photo” for his next book. Just remember that Jonathan Ames was the first one there.
  • It seems that only John Freeman is allowed to talk with David Foster Wallace. That’s two articles in seven days. What deal did he cook up with Bonnie Nadell? Or is John Freeman part of the DFW inner circle of “approved” people? (Former Freeman link via Scott)
  • The history of mustard.
  • Believe it or not, Ivan Turgenev’s one and only play, A Month in the Country, is playing in North Carolina. Free Gutenberg text here. Background info here.
  • It started with a harmless exchange of information, but Maud and I have been trying to figure out why the Graham Greene-Anthony Burgess relationship was so strange. I sent Maud an interview with the two authors that I had read in Burgess’ But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?. Jasper Milvain dug up more, pointing out that Greene disowned the interview, claiming that “Burgess put words into my mouth which I had to look up in the dictionary.” The two authors fell out, apparently by 1990, when Burgess published his second autobiographical volume, You’ve Had Your Time. And while I don’t entirely trust Wikipedia, the Anthony Burgess entry notes, “In 1957 Graham Greene asked him to bring some Chinese silk shirts back with him on furlough from Kuala Lumpur. As soon as Burgess handed over the shirts, Greene pulled out a knife and severed the cuffs, into which opium pellets had been sewn.” Now if that latter tidbit can be corroborated, then it’s just possible that the Burgess-Greene relationship might be one of the strangest in literary history. As soon as I get an opportunity to hit the library, I’m going to follow up on all this. Did Burgess and Greene love to hate each other? Or did they hate to love each other? Or was it a little bit of both? Perhaps some bona-fide authorities might have some answers to all this.

[UPDATE: Jasper has an update on the Greene-Burgess contretemps, with some citations. And in the comments to this post, Jenny Davidson offers some materal from the forthcoming Biswell biography, which apparently deals with Graham Greene at great length.]

Jonathan Ames at the Booksmith

I suppose I could blame Jonathan Ames for missing a good chunk of Saturday’s Chinese New Year Parade and the Valentine’s Day Pillow Fight at the Ferry Building. But that really wouldn’t be fair because, in at least one case, I was blissfully unaware of the limitless events happening in my own city. Besides, I’m a grown man responsible for my own actions. Or so the theory goes. And if I was idiotic enough to ignore the Laughing Squid list for a week, then Jonathan Ames is not to blame. In fact, he should be commended for confusing me. We can never be confused enough in life.

Needless to say, on Tuesday night, an evening that what was referred to by at least one friend as Drink Without Guilt Night, I certainly wasn’t the only one at the Booksmith. Some 55 people showed up, many of them arriving late because of a stunning rush hour power outage at Montgomery Street Station and MUNI’s regrettable failure to provide rush hour buses in lieu of subway. Many of them were, in fact, couples. One couple I talked with revealed to me that they were there because Ames’ essays might unite them together for effective copulation. The power of Ames’ work knows no limits. Lust conquers all.

jonathanames.jpgJust before the reading, I said hello to Ames. I was glad he got a chance to see the On the Road MS. upon my recommendation. I asked him if he had been frightened by Peter Coyote’s disembodied voice, but he had to dash off. As it turned out, he had a lot to prepare for. Thomas, the Booksmith’s event coordinator, pointed out to me that Coyote had been one of the Diggers. I knew this, of course. But I didn’t think he would understand where I was coming from: namely, the notion of having Coyote’s voice interrupt you as your awe and concentration is devoted to the roll. Coyote’s voice can be unnerving at times, particularly when it is turned up loudly through a small television speaker and resonating in a room without windows. I suppose this is why he is used for so many documentaries, voiceovers and commercials. So I foolishly remained silent. I am shy and avoidant that way sometimes.

The event began. Ames was introduced. And he expressed his hope that, after the reading, “things will become more amorous.” He then offered an explanation on the I Love You More Than You Know cover controversy. Ames had previously concluded that the world can be divided into two groups of people: those who like scatological humor and those who don’t. The cover had revealed a second dichotomy: those who believe that Ames is revealing his testicle and those who believe it to be a shadow. Ames is currently taking a poll among his readers about this and the details can be found here.

Ames then unveiled an oral version of his tale, “I Called Myself El Cid,” which can be found in the latest book. This essay concerns an unexpected fencing triumph in Ames’ youth with an ending that I shall not reveal. Ames delivered this with considerable animation, adopting a slight Shakespearean tone and seizing a pen in his hands as a surrogate sword. I could definitely see such brio could be used to win a sword fight. It was now being used to tell stories.

The oral story was received with great applause and Ames stopped to catch his breath, reading “Club Existential Dread” in the vocal timbre that I’d style Jonathan Ames Mode 1. Mode 1 is a slight sophisticated Anglicized inflection that I thought had been confined to his fiction, but apparently applied across the board. What was interesting to me was that the part of this essay that I had always found particularly interesting, the moment where five girls are lying on a bar, was rejoined with a kind of silent horror. Could Ames really be reading this in public? I suspected that Ames sensed the same problems with tone that I did, because he later suggested to the audience that there were parts where, contrary to expected responses, one was not expected to laugh. I can only chalk up this audience response confusion to the fact that we were assembled in a bookstore on Valentine’s Day.

Just before reading “No Contact, Asshole,” Ames was perturbed by the presence of a small child in the audience. Upon getting sanction from the mother, he read this and followed this up with “The Thick Man.” During the latter piece, Ames apologized, mid-read, for being so modifier-happy with female anatomy, noting that “Sometimes it happens when you write these things.”

There followed a session of Q&A.

There was a question that wasn’t really a question about Ames appearing on Oprah about the truthfulness of his work. Thankfully, Ames’ response was brief. Something to the effect of “I don’t think so.”

Ames was then asked if he was happy with his current book tour. He said that he was on this latest tour, largely because Nextbook has already coaxed him away from Brooklyn and he persuaded the publisher to chip in for a few more cities along the way. He pointed out that authors were never completely happy about their book tours, in large part because they genuinely believed that the publisher never provided enough PR. But he did note that the chip on his shoulder had grown smaller over the years.

Ames had received many interesting things from readers along the way. An offer from a transexual escort, the like. But at the Seattle reading, Ames had received a comic called “Things Are Beautiful,” a small chapbook bound in red string. (Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any trace of this online.) Ames had been delighted with the first 10-12 pages, in which various objects were declared beautiful, with accompanying text. But after this, things took a turn for the worse. Ames encountered a pair of glasses, with the words, “These glasses would be elegant…” He turned the page, only to see a picture of a bald man that looked suspiciously like Jonathan Ames himself. The text then read, “…if I hadn’t ripped your eyes out like Oedipus!” Ames wondered if there was a subconscious message. After all, he was bald and this illustration closely resembled him.

Since I had forgotten to ask Ames (a second time!) when I interviewed him, I asked him about his use of exclamation marks. He simply stated that he wasn’t against them and that he didn’t understand why people are told not to use them. He mentioned Graham Greene’s use of colons.

When asked about whether he included “everything” in his nonfiction, Ames pointed out that he was not a polymath. He name-checked David Foster Wallace, pointing to these “great folders” (i.e., the footnotes) that DFW had a tendency to open up in his essays. He openly wondered why DFW was wasting his time in fiction when he could be working for the government.

The last time Ames had come through the Booksmith, he had stripped down to his waist to display acupuncture cupping marks. Given this and the testicle issue on the cover, there was a question then implying whether Ames was some sort of subdued exhibitionist. Ames revealed that the current cover came about because of a photo shoot. The boxer photo had not been used. The original book cover had “I Love You More Than You Know” displayed on the back of a flasher’s coat. Ames was appalled by this. Flashers weren’t exactly strong selling points.

During the writing of I Pass Like Night, Ames had used his father’s boss’s name during one of the drafts. His father was paranoid about this. After the book was released, everybody in Ames’ family went to family therapy. And yet with his father in the audience as he performed on stage, his father had laughed when other scatological revelations had been revealed.

Ames then performed a hairy call and bid the audience good night.

An unexpected errand prevented me from staying. And since Ames was mobbed, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. (Sorry, Jonathan!)

But on the way out, I ran into Steve Rhodes, who had snapped a good deal of photos during the reading. I’m hoping he’ll post some of them in the not too distant future.

There’s also another Ames Segundo interview in the can that I hope to get up in the next week or so.

75 Books, Books #5-7

Last week was a busy week, but if there was any advantage to MUNI’s stunning inefficiencies of late (thank you, Nathaniel Ford!), it’s the extra 45 minutes per day of reading time.

Book #5 was Gilbert Sorrentino’s Little Casino. When I initially started reading this, it seemed to me that this was not so much a “novel,” but more of a collection of throwaway pieces. The book is constructed in short chapters, each chapter split up into two sections. The first is a memory fragment of some unknown human, some random incident of a fey and often funny nature, the second is a sort of intellectual response to it that often clarifies details through a voice that may or may not be the “author’s.” Of course, this being the world of Sorrentino, each fragment involves either a grisly death, sex or a fixation on cigarettes. Even when a chapter isn’t successful (and there are plenty that aren’t, some of them read like as if they’ve been pulled out of an MFA student’s journal, but this approach may in fact be the point), the book can be enjoyed as a collection of vignettes or possibly an effort to track various characters (some of them specific names, some of them merely “hes” and “shes”) who may or may not match up.

Strangely, I found myself preferring Sorrentino’s stylistic exercises to many of the calls and responses. There is, for example, a “lengthy” deposition transcript that points out the hypocrisies of political correctness and frivolous litigation which is quite hilarious, but it could have been thrown into just about any Sorrentino novel. And while I always enjoy Sorrentino getting goofy with self-imposed prose limitations (one chapter, for example, has every sentence begin with “Had X not Y”), I wondered how much of the book was genuinely “experimental” and how much was filler. I didn’t so much mind the lack of unity, but, unlike Mulligan Stew, I really felt that much of this work was written to pad it out to 200 pages and didn’t always find myself relishing the work. So this book is probably for Sorrentino completists only. For everyone else interested in dipping their toes into Sorrentino, still one of today’s most underrated novelists, I highly recommend Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.

For more on Sorrentino, check out this lengthy Gerald Howard profile.

Book #6 was Jonathan AmesI Love You More Than You Can Know, a nonfiction collection that Ames had suggested to me was a collection of throwaway pieces — essentiallly, the remaining nonfiction that he hadn’t yet assembled in book form. I should have known that he was being typically self-effacing. This is not his answer to The Salmon of Doubt — in large part, because this isn’t a posthumous collection. Because many of these essays are as funny as anything Ames has ever written, particularly the leftover New York Press pieces. What’s particularly interesting is that Ames saved a good deal of essays involving his penis for this book. This time around, however, Ames seems even more introspective (if it can be believed) and a tad gloomier than his two previous books of nonfiction. Or perhaps I was a tad cheerier. Whatever the case, his more recent pieces from the past three years read as if they’ve been written under duress. But if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Ames’ essays, it’s definitely worth it for the laughs.

Incidentally, the Young, Roving Correspondent will be talking with Ames again when he strolls through San Francisco. I’m honored to announce that Jonathan Ames will be the first guest to appear twice on the Bat Segundo Show. And while I’m unlikely to reveal any future Segundo-related books after the podcasts have been posted, in Ames’ case, I wanted to make a special exception, as I must honor the tacit agreement of constant Ames promotion.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: And as fate would have it, Jonathan Ames has a new essay about cleaning his fridge up over at The Morning News.]

Book #7 was Tim O’Brien‘s Lake in the Woods, which was my first O’Brien novel and it certainly won’t be my last. The book tells the story of John Wade, a veteran of My Lai and one-time teenage magician who morphs into a politician. One day, shortly after catastrophically losing a U.S. Senate race just after a personal scandal that isn’t entirely spelled out, his wife disappears. The reasons for her disappearance and the circumstances of Wade’s life are unclear, but are gradually revealed to the reader. What makes the book work so well is that way O’Brien plays with context and keeps many fascinating details from the reader. O’Brien is daring enough not to answer all of the questions and is deft at balancing style (chapters containing excerpts from “interviews” and books on war and politics provide context, as do other chapters offering hypotheses on what may have happened) with a reader’s expectations. Unfortunately, once O’Brien’s revealed his hand, the book starts to flag near the end. But as a study of concealment, both personal and historical, O’Brien’s book is gripping, written in an effectively austere manner.

It’s also interesting that shortly after writing this novel, O’Brien published a painfully personal essay about surviving My Lai and what his life was like years later. He revealed thoughts of suicide, sleeping pills and memories of a girlfriend who left him. He also reveals that the name of his real-life girlfriend is Kate (also the name of John Wade’s wife).

Ames Alert

As Return of the Reluctant readers know, last year we signed a contract with a well-dressed man who happened to have a pair of horns. The man promised that we would have great artistic success and that, one way or another, we would somehow learn to play more than pentatonic scales on our guitar, wowing audiences with our preternatural abilities. The one proviso, of course, was that we note any and all Jonathan Ames developments on this blog.

As of yet, we have yet to play like John Lee Hooker or Stevie Ray Vaughan and the phone number on the red-horned man’s business card is “disconnected or no longer in service.” (If anyone else knows how to get a hold of “Beezle Bob Harris,” please let me know.) But as we’re men of our word, we must note that Jonathan Ames has made yet another unwonted nonfiction appearance over at the New York Observer. The piece involves tennis, a subway conversation and many other amazing things.

(We should also note that Mr. Ames now has an Observer email address. Does this mean a regular return to nonfiction?)

Ames Update

Earlier this year, in March, I signed a contract not with Faust, but with someone far more pleasant. I believe his name was First. Mr. First was dressed in a dark oxford shirt, a pair of wrinkle-free Dockers, and had very polished shoes. He said, “Son, can you play me a memory. I’m not really sure how it goes. But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I know it’s complete. When I wore a younger man’s clothes.” I sat at the piano and played the only two things I know outside of “Chopsticks” — the riff for “Lady Madonna” and Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. Mr. First told me that this wasn’t acceptable and that the two half-songs I played weren’t really memories, but melodies. I didn’t argue with him. Jonathan Ames’ name was brought up and well, you know the rest.

Or perhaps I’m getting my last karaoke experience confused with the papers that I’m sure that I signed — if I did indeed sign papers. (Was it the apartment lease?)

Either way, I’ve made it my duty to report any and all Jonathan Ames developments. And right now there are two: first, this Slate piece whereby Mr. Ames chronicles his midlife situation and this piece from The Stranger, whereby The Extra Man and Wake Up, Sir! are both used as cases against suicide.